OTTUMWA — The fact the storefront at 307 E. Main St., is vacant doesn’t stand out. Many of the storefronts on the block are. But most aren’t secured with a rusty chain and a shiny new padlock.
It’s also the site of an unusual action by the city. The building has been declared abandoned, and is now the city’s property. Abandoned buildings in Ottumwa don’t tend to be in the heart of a district the city has been working to restore.
“This building is in dire need of renovation,” City Attorney Joni Keith told city council members Tuesday. “It’s full of debris and miscellaneous materials.”
Records from the Wapello County Assessor’s office show the building was constructed in 1900. The city acquired it in July. Ten years ago it sold for $42,500.
The building’s facade was redone as part of the downtown area’s rehabilitation program, but even that shows problems. A pair of exterior lights installed are hanging from their wires, and an upstairs window is slightly ajar.
“It is absolutely full of stuff,” Keith said Wednesday, “and zoning downtown doesn’t permit buildings to be used as storage. [The second floor] is full of cardboard, clothes and trash. Now we have to figure out what in the world do we want to do with it.”
Keith said Wednesday it’s rare for the city to acquire an abandoned building downtown. There have been others that have been placarded for needed repairs or maintenance, but most owners move quickly to have those taken care of. She said the laws governing abandoned buildings in Iowa applied to residential properties until a few years ago, when the legislature expanded cities’ options on commercial sites.
Demolition is not a good option. The building is sandwiched between other, connected structures that are being rehabilitated. That poses a challenge that simply is not present when the building in question is a stand-alone structure. Demolition, in addition to costing $100,000 Keith said the city doesn’t have, would leave an ugly gap in a block that has seen progress.
There are incentives available for the project. Tuesday’s resolution offers up to $40,000 in incentives, a bargain compared to the cost of demolition, split between the city and the Legacy Foundation.
The city is hoping to find a partner to make repairs and rehabilitate the building. One of the first concerns is installation of a back roof, which the building’s prior owner removed. That left a portion of the building open to the elements, raising serious concerns about the building’s electrical system.
“When we inspected it in June the electricity was on,” Keith said. It was immediately disconnected.
It won’t be an easy project, Keith conceded. But the redevelopment of other buildings downtown suggests it could pay off for the right owner. In addition to commercial space, the upstairs area is similar to that in two adjacent buildings being renovated, and downtown apartments rarely stay on the market long.
The first step is finding a buyer, with proposals for the purchase and development due Sept. 9. City officials will review the proposals and make a recommendation to the council.