OTTUMWA — Council members approved an application for a federal BUILD Grant to remake the area around the historic train depot and Ballingall Park.
Discussions of major projects have been tough in recent weeks as the scale of the financial hit created by the COVID-19 pandemic begins to come into focus. While there have not yet been specific figures given, city staff and elected officials have been clear that there will be real losses.
It also comes in the wake of a testy budgeting process that saw the city approve a Fiscal 2021 budget that cut positions in public service.
Council members closely questioned the application, which calls for the city to spend $1 million in matching funds, before giving it unanimous approval. Councilman Marc Roe said that’s a high figure, but might wind up being a shrewd investment. He called it “a rather good buy,” given that the project would cover work that would need to be done regardless.
“We had a meeting yesterday in which you had mentioned … assuming we didn’t chase this grant opportunity and look to invest this million dollars in this grant, we’re potentially looking over the next few years at about $3.1 million that the city and waterworks would have to invest,” Roe said.
Planning and Development Director Kevin Flanagan said that was accurate. Some work is needed on both the utilities in the area and buildings.
Dennis Wilhoit spoke on behalf of the city’s historic preservation commission, noting that the depot and park is on the National Historic Register. He said the commission has concerns about some of the plans, but stopped short of opposition to the concept.
Brad Grefe, a senior planner with Area 15 Regional Planning, emphasized efforts to “mainly keep the character” of the area. The depot is in need of some work.
“It does need exterior improvements. The windows need to be replaced or repaired. The tuckpointing needs to be shored up,” Grefe said. “It’s in decent shape, but it needs to be repaired if we want to keep it for the next few generations.”
Grefe presented the concept as a way of improving one of the city’s entry points. Since the station still sees daily stops by Amtrak, the area does have the opportunity to make an impression on newcomers.
The BUILD Grant application seeks $14.4 million for what is projected to be an $18.1 million project. The deadline is May 18.
Grefe said safety is another motivating factor.
“It’s a mess right there at Market Street and the railroad tracks and River Drive, where it goes into those two parking lots. They don’t line up,” he said.
The city’s contribution would be $1 million which, Grefe said, effectively amounts to $200,000 per year over the five-year construction period.
Mayor Tom Lazio said people need to understand Tuesday’s vote did not commit money yet. It would have to come back to the council if a grant is awarded. “This is purely an authorization for the council to submit the grant application,” he said.
Council members took the unusual step of voting to defeat a resolution during Tuesday’s meeting, shelving the proposal to reserve $100,000 for Bridge View Center. City Administrator Philip Rath told council members there is a proposal being developed that differs slightly, so formally rejecting the current proposal was his recommendation.
“The recommendation is for us to defeat this one, and then take whatever action the council sees fit on the later resolution,” Rath said.
One of the other major decisions from the meeting took the least discussion. The council unanimously voted to appoint Lt. Chad Farrington as the city’s next police chief. Farrington was one of two candidates previously interviewed by the council, and both are longtime members of the Ottumwa Police Department.