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OTTUMWA — There was sadness when demolition of St. Joseph Hospital began in 2018. People saw a building that had long been key to the life of the community, one many people had personal connections to, being torn down.

On Tuesday, when work on the demolition resumed, there was another emotion: relief.

Nancy VanWyk lives nearby had has watched for nearly a year as the former hospital sat, half-demolished, after work halted amid a pay dispute between Elder Corporation and Blackbird Investments. While she understood the construction work that is planned for after the demolition will be disruptive, see saw Tuesday’s work as progress.

“I think our first step is just being glad to get that ugly building down,” she said. “One step at a time.”

VanWyk has lived near the site for five years. She said the delay in demolition was frustrating, but that people tried to keep a sense of perspective.

“We joked that it would be a good site for an apocalyptic movie,” she said.

Drish Construction, a Fairfield company, began setting up a large crane and otherwise preparing to begin demolition on Monday. Blackbird announced Drish’s hiring in May and said the company will have 70 working days to complete demolition.

Elder Corp. sued 312 E. Alta Vista LLC, the limited liability corporation set up by Blackbird for demolition of the former hospital and construction of a new housing development, in February. That suit, which sought the forced sale of the property to pay what Elder said was an unpaid bill, remains active in the courts. The most recent development was notice of a trial scheduling conference in May.

Blackbird contended in court filings that it has paid Elder the amount owed, and disputed the company’s claims on how much of the work had been completed.

The court case may not be the key development, though. Filings noted the dispute was in arbitration, which is significantly less public than filings in Iowa courts. There has been no indication in the court file that arbitration has concluded.

Tuesday morning’s work drew a trickle of curious observers. Councilman Skip Stevens watched for a few minutes. He said he was confident Drish had the resources to be able to meet the timeline Blackbird gave the city.

Drish also took steps to address the dust kicked up by demolition, which was a major point of contention with neighboring residents. During one pause for the wrecking ball, an employee took a fire hose and sprayed down the south side of the building. The water should help tamp down dust, though some is inevitable.

The project has evolved significantly since it was first proposed several years ago. The initial plans were to convert the hospital itself into upscale apartments. That plan was discarded when it became clear how significant the challenges of such extensive renovations to the building were.

The most recent public plans call for a 57-unit development, with half designed for single families and half for multi-family structures. The development also envisions a park at the site which will be publicly accessible, but maintained by the homeowner’s association.

— 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.