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The open house for Ottumwa’s draft comprehensive plan drew curious residents, but also faced the challenge common to any event these days in balancing concerns about COVID-19. Most people kept their distances from one another, and many wore masks.

OTTUMWA — Few people in Ottumwa don’t know the city’s needs. Housing is number one on almost everyone’s list.

Few are unfamiliar with the concerns, too. Population loss. Stagnation.

City officials know it. The question is what makes the new comprehensive plan different from plans that have come and gone before. It doesn’t raise new issues, so there need to be new solutions.

City Administrator Philip Rath said that starts with keeping the plan in front of both residents and elected officials. Reminding both groups of the plan’s goals and explicitly tying action to enacting those goals makes a difference.

“We really want to make sure it’s not just a plan that sits on a shelf. It’s a living, evolving document,” he said.

Rath admitted that’s easier said than done. But when people see steps being taken toward filling the plan’s goals, they are reminded of the plan’s very existence. Those reminders make it more of a presence in the minds of residents and leaders alike.

But, again, getting those reminders in front of people isn’t simple. Planning and Development Director Kevin Flanagan said the most obvious step right now is the streetscape. That’s downtown. The benefit is the visibility. The down side is people don’t necessarily see the effects every day.

Getting those effects to hit people where they live requires a different approach. Flanagan said the recent spinoff of Rippling Waters from the Ottumwa Regional Legacy Foundation will help. Rippling Waters has property and resources that could be directed to the next steps for the city.

“We have a lot of resources that we can divest from. We’re getting out of the downtown business and into the neighborhood business,” Flanagan said.

By approaching improvements at the neighborhood level, Flanagan said he hopes people will see the differences in their day-to-day lives. It’s a parallel path to the efforts the city has made to eliminate derelict buildings. The worst examples, what Flanagan called the low-hanging fruit, are gone. There’s work to be done, but the easiest steps have been taken.

The next steps are harder, and require more resources. And that itself is a challenge. No one is sure exactly how big the hole blown in the city’s budget by the COVID-19 pandemic is, though better estimates are beginning to emerge. And, since state and federal revenues have also been hit hard, there may not be as much help coming as the city might like.

With budget cuts made even before the pandemic, Flanagan said the city will need to get creative. Concepts like revenue sharing with corporate partners are being examined to see whether they might generate investments. There are a lot of questions, and not a lot of answers yet.

And that gets back to the need to get the community to buy in on the overall plan, even as details are developed.

“We want to get out and have conversations with folks very soon,” Flanagan said.

Rath hoped the exposure could help in other ways as well. The risk in a community Ottumwa’s size is that the same dozen or so people are involved in everything. That limits new ideas, but also burns people out. So Ottumwa must expand the pool of volunteers.

“We want to open it up and encourage more people to get involved,” Rath said.

Thursday was the first step in that direction.

Matt Milner can be reached at mmilner@ottumwacourier.com and followed on Twitter @mwmilner

Matt Milner can be reached at mmilner@ottumwacourier.com and followed on Twitter @mwmilner

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Managing Editor

Matt Milner currently serves as the Courier's Managing Editor. Milner is a trained weather spotter and is usually outside if there are storms. He joined the Courier in 2002.

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