OTTUMWA — The discussion of a possible Bonita Avenue housing project was toward the end of Tuesday's Ottumwa City Council meeting.

Bridgett Michel wanted her voice heard long before.

During comments about the agenda, Michel addressed the council about her concerns for the possible project, a 108-unit, multi-family housing development on 10 acres that requires the city to establish a new TIF district for urban renewal in that area. The only action taken on the item was to set a public hearing for Nov. 2, which passed 4-1 with council member Matt Dalbey voting it down.

Michel admitted the city needs housing but, since JBS has played an integral part in the process, she wants it developed somewhere else, perhaps closer to the factory. JBS representatives also were on hand to discuss their logic later in the meeting.

"I bought this property because it was a nice, quiet neighborhood, well taken-care-of and everybody knows everybody," said Michel, who lives at 318 Bonita Avenue. "Did they ever ask the neighborhood? No one was ever considered or talked to about this.

"I pay high taxes in this area, where there's no crime," she added. "Eisenhower school is going to get overwhelmed. If they would build this at the airport, that would be amazing, or over by JBS, where they can walk to work. What I can't understand is they never bothered asking anybody."

Later in the meeting, JBS human resources director Zenna Boyd said the housing development is a small step toward home ownership.

"We've seen a lot more families relocating here over the last three to four years, and one of the struggles we have is they don't want to stay in a hotel for any amount of time," she said. "So we're hoping with this development that it shortens that time to where they can be able to buy homes. But, at the end of the day, those homes aren't available either.

"This is just step one."

JBS general manager Joe Mach said the company is offering good-paying jobs, but added it's difficult to get skilled workers for them.

"This plays out in city after city after city where we have plants," he said. "We're all in the same boat. We're farther along than some of those cities, and that's something we're proud of. Putting up some really nice housing is a perk for both recruiting and retention of our employees, which are extremely hard to find right now."

Dalbey's concern was the TIF rebate that Huegerich Construction is seeking for development. The rebate would be up to 100% of the tax generated for 20 years, not exceeding $3.5 million. He wondered what the city gets out of it.

"If we're going to rebate future tax money, there's got to be something in it for the city," he said. "Like with the hotel project. It's going to be generating hotel/motel tax, helping fund roads, public safety, all those things.

"So when I see a project asking for a 20-year rebate, where the city basically received no revenue, at what point do we, as a city, say we can't continue to do this?"

Dalbey, however, stressed the importance of home ownership, but "I want to see single-family units that the city can benefit from. I want to see subdivisions."

"I don't want to keep seeing repayment, but if this is a step and a necessary step toward that, then I would be on board."

Councilman Marc Roe, who said he is a fan of TIF, is not a fan of new TIF districts. Before the project even gets off the ground, the city would have to meet with different TIF jurisdictions, and then establish an urban renewal plan.

"We haven't really heard an answer as to whether property values in the general area will increase, decrease or remain relatively the same," he said. "I know one of the arguments the supervisors have posed is that a TIF doesn't help their general fund much, and if we're giving back 100%, it's clearly not going to help ours either. Those are just some points to ponder."

Ryan Huegerich, CEO of the construction company, said the TIF rebate is a vital part of the project. With costs of construction on the rise, that rebate will help, he said. He also wants to make a good impression when it comes to construction in the community.

"The TIF could make or bring the project from being successful, or a smaller project if need be," he said. "This isn't a half measure. It's a big development and we're confident it will work, we're confident in the people that we will bring in and we're confident that we will maintain a quality housing project.

"Our goal is not to do one project at a time," Huegerich said. "We want to do single-family and we want to do condos. We want to do townhouses. But this is where we want to show you what we can do."

Michel is not opposed to housing; she simply wants the construction to happen on a parcel of land somewhere else.

"I care about the employees, and I know everyone is having an issue with hiring," she said. "But that area doesn't need urban renewal. If it's not broke, don't fix it."

— Chad Drury can be reached at cdrury@ottumwacourier.com, and on Twitter @ChadDrury

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