Courier Staff Writer
A sports complex could be one of the best things to happen to Ottumwa, said Councilman Brian Morgan, but not before extensive research is conducted and community conversations are held.
Brad Little, president and CEO of the Ottumwa Regional Legacy Foundation, spoke to the Parks Advisory Board Tuesday night about ORLF’s ideas to develop the city’s park system and build sports complexes.
Little said the foundation has been looking at and traveling to cities similar to Ottumwa for the past two years to get an idea of where they started, how their communities have progressed and how Ottumwa can learn lessons from what they’ve accomplished.
“We’ve looked at cities with river, rail, manufacturing and a long history, who have reached the ‘worst of’ something and managed to pull back and move forward,” Little said.
Some of these cities have included Waterloo, Cedar Falls, Bloomfield, Chattanooga, Tenn., and more.
“Every place we’ve been has said, ‘It’s the water, stupid,’” Little said. “Until you figure that out, until you understand the importance of a river going right through the community, it’ll be futile efforts.”
And it doesn’t matter the condition of the water, he said. The tipping point for these cities was when they realized how to embrace the river and make it a feature, not a liability, he said.
One of the key elements is revitalization, which ORLF has narrowed down to four key areas: Reclaiming Main Street, Riverfront Renaissance, Ottumwa park sports campus and extending Central Park to the river.
ORLF hired Stroud Watson and Christian Rushing, consultants from Chattanooga, Tenn., to lead the “Reclaiming Main Street” initiative.
Elements of this project include studying converting downtown from one-way to two-way streets; the parking lot at the Jefferson Street Bridge and Main Street; streetscape and facade standards and guidelines; Lead Ottumwa Leadership Academy; downtown bus stop and shelter relocation; the intersection of Washington and Main streets; and quiet zones at rail crossings.
Fred Lynn, owner of Lynn Leisure Development, of Orlando, Fla., was the lead designer for the casino project a few years back and has been hired to help with the “Riverfront Renaissance.”
The view from Bridge View Center is the “city’s front porch,” Little said, and downtown Ottumwa is its living room.
A sports complex would fit into this view, he said.
“We firmly believe that youth sports, while they’re not completely recession-proof, are pretty darn near close to being so,” Little said, since parents continue to do their best to get their children to sports tournaments, games and training.
Tournaments coming to Ottumwa would mean an overnight stay or two, and likely more than two people traveling with each player, he said.
“It could be an economic engine for Ottumwa,” he said. “It’s silly not to say a lazy river is a good idea, but I’d rather have the conversation about investing dollars in something that has turnaround now. We’d rather have a conversation about something that creates jobs.”
But right now, said ORLF board member Tom Lazio, Ottumwa doesn’t have the infrastructure to support high-volume sports tournaments.
“Infrastructure has to be ready, meaning beds, restaurants,” Little said.
He said if it’s not here, there are plenty of cities who would gladly compete with Ottumwa to hold those tournaments.
Billy Young said Ottumwa hosted the Ottumwa Open tennis tournaments for 25 to 30 years, bringing thousands to the city who spent money on hotels, restaurants and shopping.
But when Dan Staggs stopped organizing them, the tournaments stopped, said board president Bob Beisch.
That is one of the key elements to something like this, Little said, is creating a base of volunteers who know the processes to carry on once a leader steps down.
“I don’t know where you’re going to find 12 to 20 acres in central Ottumwa,” said Councilman Mitch Niner.
Little suggested that a team could work around that with transportation and separate facilities.
“We want to create synergies, hubs within the community,” he said. “We don’t want them driving all over town.”
Beisch warned that many people in the community he’s talked to are adamant that they do not want sports complexes erected in the parks system.
“There are always naysayers,” Little said. “We’ll let the experts lead community conversations and figure it out.”
Niner warned, though, that it gets under people’s skin when people from outside Ottumwa come in two to three times “and are considered experts on Ottumwa.”
The Parks Advisory Board also approved a revised proposal from Ottumwa Rotary for landscaping in Greater Ottumwa Park just off of Wapello Street near the entrance to the campgrounds.