When Hobby Chest announced it was going out of business, it wasn’t a shock to economic developers in Ottumwa. Brown’s Shoe Fit? No one saw that coming.

The net result for Ottumwa is two large, very visible retail spaces shutting their doors downtown. The closings come as other developments and businesses were making progress in renewing the downtown area, and it’s enough to make one wonder whether the momentum that had started to build has come to a halt.

Cindy Woodbury, director of Main Street Ottumwa, thinks not.

“There’s always attrition. You hate to have it happen,” she said. “We’re seeing change and change is always unsettling.”

Woodbury said part of what makes this seem like a harder blow is the contrast between progress and the closings, combined with how sudden the second closing is. She had heard for some time that the owners of Hobby Chest were considering retirement. But there was no warning about Brown’s Shoe.

How big a shock was the shoe store’s closure? Woodbury said Main Street had been working with Ottumwa’s Brown’s Shoe outlet on plans for facade renovations and possibly some interior work just weeks before the announcement.

Woodbury prefers to focus on some clear steps forward that have been made since the Main Street program arrived in Ottumwa. The KMGO building is well into extensive renovations, several new restaurants have opened downtown in just the past year, and new professional offices are opening as well.

It’s not a case of refusing to see reversals, Woodbury said, but of not allowing disappointments to overshadow progress.

Still, the contrast is sharp enough to raise the question of which picture is right. Are the closures temporary setbacks or harbingers of things to come?

David Barajas has a wider area of responsibility as head of the Ottumwa Economic Development Corporation. He thinks both views have part of the picture, but neither one encompasses the full scope.

He said there are unquestionably challenges in Ottumwa’s economic climate, especially as the national economy continues to struggle. That stress can cause longtime businesses to close.

That said, Barajas believes the impact of multiple new businesses opening over the past year should not be discounted, even if they are smaller offices or restaurants.

“That’s good stuff. If you look at some of the work that’s been done in some of those buildings, it’s amazing,” he said. “It’s bits and pieces here and there. But that’s what it’s going to take.”

Even the closure of the shoe store doesn’t appear to be a complete disaster. Neither Barajas nor Woodbury believe the building is going to be vacant for long, though neither is currently able to speak to what the new occupant might be.

“We do know that there is another business that, I believe, has purchased the building and will be going in,” Woodbury said.

“It looks like a good possibility that the store isn’t going to be empty for too long,” Barajas agreed.

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