OTTUMWA — Looking back at the year always brings back moments you had forgotten about. There are probably a few in the Courier’s top 10 stories of the year.
To create this list, the Courier’s newsroom staff looked at what stories drew the most traffic online and looked for themes. With those identified, we worked to assess which of the themes had the biggest impact on the community both in 2019 and in the months to come.
One story stood head and shoulders above the others. It was the unanimous number one for the Courier, and we think you’ll agree.
So here they are, the top 10 stories in the Ottumwa area from the past year.
No. 1: Ottumwa schools
The year saw impressive highs for the Ottumwa Community School District, but those seemed to often be matched by low points. The district’s consideration of whether to build a new elementary school was certainly a point of contention in the community, with passionate arguments being made by both sides.
But there were other big stories. SparkTank’s continued development as a program continues to show results. Larry Northup led his final ventures with Ottumwa students to explore our country, trips he has been an integral part of for decades.
Low points included the district’s move to discipline an employee for following the law as a mandatory reporter and the continuing turnover in the OHS principal’s office.
The district’s year was neither a complete success nor a failure. Instead, it leaves the district facing many of the challenges that it has struggled with for years, and presents multiple tests for its leadership.
No. 2: Local elections
The line between the top two stories blurs a bit, but there was enough that was unique about the 2019 elections to justify its own place as a major story.
Interest in the city council elections was low compared to previous years, with only five candidates filing for the two seats. The same could not be said of the school board elections, which saw 15 candidates file.
That campaign was bruising. It included a court challenge to six candidates over missing signatures on their campaign petitions. While the courts declined to intervene and bar those candidates from the ballot, the Election Day results were crystal clear. Ottumwa voters wanted new people on the school board, and incumbents were replaced.
No. 3: City government
This was a tumultuous year for the city, with significant turnover in high-ranking positions. The biggest was the sudden removal of the city administrator, who later resigned.
The changes didn’t stop there. Mayor Tom Lazio’s placement of the administrator on leave without a prior council vote raised questions. So did Lazio’s move to become interim city administrator. Both moves eventually received the council’s approval.
Ottumwa’s longtime finance director retired, leaving the city to fill the position. By year’s end, a new finance director was in place, and the city had a timeline for hiring a new administrator.
Turnover happens in city government. But this year’s unusual volume will have repercussions for a long time.
No. 4: Economic development gains
Ottumwa saw some clear gains in 2019. The VA clinic’s move to the Target building will give them easy access and the space to expand in the future. Ottumwa’s streetscape project more or less kept to the timeline laid out before work began. It’s not finished, but what has been done looks good.
One of the most visible projects — redevelopment of the former St. Joseph Hospital site — finally got moving again. Demolition came quickly once the work resumed, and the site appears to be ready for work in the spring.
The merger of the Chamber, OEDC and Partners in Progress at the end of the year is hard to measure. There hasn’t been much time for any changes to become visible, and officials have said this is more a move to streamline things than an overhaul. It could be a good step for Ottumwa, though the community will have to wait to see how things wind up shaking out.
No. 5: Economic development losses
The year was not an absolute gain for Ottumwa in terms of economic development. Market on Main is closing. There’s significant, and justified, concern about the health of businesses that line East Main Street and were disrupted by the streetscape project.
The year was not a disaster for Ottumwa economically. There were no closures of major chains in town, as previous years have seen. But there are reasons for concern and a real need for support of local businesses as 2020 dawns.
No. 6: Weather
The past year won’t be remembered for any one overriding weather phenomenon in the same way that 1993 or 2008 are. But the combination of events still made the year’s weird weather worthy of a top 10 spot.
Record-breaking cold arrived in late January, with temperatures dropping to -21 on back-to-back nights. May saw an unusually early 90-degree day. But temperatures were not the main issue. Rain, then the lack thereof, was.
Spring rains caused flooding on the Des Moines River, though it was nowhere near as bad as in some other parts of the state. But the persistent precipitation meant farmers had a hard time getting their fields planted. When summer arrived, the rain left, hurting crops that already had a late start. Then rain returned, delaying harvests.
No. 7: People helping out
While many of the stories from 2019 have both good and bad elements, this one is an unmitigated strength for Ottumwa. Volunteers helped make Ottumwa’s big events work in 2019.
From annual events like Oktoberfest, the balloon races and the Mayhem Haunted House to events that are still developing, people came out to support their community. There’s promise in the return of the 4-H invitational horse show and the continuing development of the Chamber rodeo. The Canteen eating contest drew a good crowd, too.
And none of it could have happened without volunteers.
No. 8: Caucus campaigns and politics
After a flurry of activity early in 2019, most candidates skipped Ottumwa during the summer months. But the fall brought a return of activity as the final spring for the first-in-the-nation event began.
Iowans take the caucuses seriously, and candidates know it. The number of people who will take the time to go see a candidate, even if they’re not sure they’ll vote for that person, is impressive.
And local political figures made their own marks. Trudy Caviness and Mary Stewart were both honored for their work by the Republican and Democratic parties, respectively.
No. 9: Celebrities
Some of the year’s biggest events were punctuated by visits from celebrities with broad name recognition. Frank Fritz of “American Pickers” and world champion eater Joey Chestnut visited the Home and Garden Show early in 2019. And Chestnut returned to claim the Canteen crown in June.
The other big name was an accidental celebrity. Carson King held a sign asking for beer money when ESPN’s GameDay visited for the Iowa-Iowa State game. It went viral. People gave, and so did he. The money, minus the cost of some beer, went to the University of Iowa’s children’s hospital. King then came to Ottumwa as grand marshal of the Oktoberfest parade, joined by honorary grand marshals who had been treated at the hospital.
No. 10: Crime
Some years see major events that shock the community. Those were largely, and thankfully, absent from Ottumwa in 2019.
But the community still struggles with drug addictions and the crimes it can fuel. And violence is still too prevalent. Crime wasn’t the biggest issue for Ottumwa in 2019, but don’t make the mistake of thinking it wasn’t present.