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OTTUMWA — The energy Thursday at the groundbreaking for Ottumwa’s streetscape project was clear. People were excited, happy to finally see the project begin. There were also some nerves. It’s going to be disruptive.

But the hope is that at the end of this ride the city will have a true showcase district, three blocks that, in the words of Area 15’s Brad Grefe will rank among the best downtowns in Iowa.

“Just getting to the building stages is always a challenge,” he said. “We’ve got such a good thing going in southeast Iowa. Not just in Ottumwa.”

The work, Grefe said, needed to be done. He pointed to the differences in curb heights — some almost nonexistent while others were a good five or six inches — and broken concrete. By approaching the 100 through 300 blocks of East Main Street as a whole, the end result can be a unified vision.

Mayor Tom Lazio echoed those thoughts during his remarks.

“This is necessary. This project needs to be done,” he said. “Be patient, but support your local businesses.”

Organizers turned the groundbreaking, which took place on East Main Street in front of the Market on Main, into a multi-block festival. Games for children, equipment from John Deere, Alliant Energy and the fire department, along with open business doors made it as much a block party as a groundbreaking.

Steve Dust, CEO of the Legacy Foundation, said the project “really represents the future of this community.”

“We’re also celebrating a community that has come together to do a big, once-in-a-lifetime project,” he said.

The downtown district has changed significantly since 2006, when Ottumwa joined the Main Street program. On Thursday, it wasn’t just local officials who took notice. Michael Wagler, Main Street Iowa’s coordinator, said he looked down the block at that time from a spot not far from the pile of dirt brought in for the ceremony.

“I hope that you are seeing just as much change as we are experiencing,” he said. “And it is just the tip of the iceberg.”

The project involves the full replacement of the street and sidewalks in the 100-300 blocks of East Main Street, along with utility work and landscaping. Planned as a two-stage project, the work will begin this year and wrap up at the end of the 2020 construction season. Planners are promising something special.

“We’re not just ripping out what’s thee and not caring about what’s put back,” Grefe said.

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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.