OTTUMWA — Jake McCoy’s introduction to the building in the 200 block of East Main Street wasn’t encouraging. The roof was almost at the point of collapse, and someone had taken an unusual step to keep it from sending water through to the ground floor.
“I was up here in October when that swimming pool was up here,” he said.
McCoy wasn’t exaggerating. Photos show the space when renovators first got into it. Two good-sized wading pools were filled with murky water that had come through the roof. A piece of plywood had fallen across the edge of one, so saturated it had folded almost like a piece of paper.
Saturday’s look could hardly have been more different. The apartment isn’t livable, not yet. There’s still wiring work and a lot of finishing to go. Bare lights hung from the ceiling, but fresh coats of paint were on the walls. The smell of sawdust was strong. It wasn’t finished yet, but you could see what the space was going to be come.
This year’s Upstairs Downtown tour continued Main Street Ottumwa’s efforts to give people a chance to see the downtown district a bit differently. There was skepticism when work began on restoring upper floor apartments. Would people really want to live in an area that hadn’t had a thriving residential population in years?
They did. The apartments are snapped up today as fast as they’re finished. If one comes on the market, it doesn’t stay vacant long. And, with several hundred more units as candidates for renovations, the work doesn’t seem likely to stop soon.
Kolby Streeby’s station was halfway down the block from the building McCoy was in. Her cousin is Fred Zesiger, Main Street’s director. With that kind of connection, it’s hard to not get involved.
Not that Streeby is complaining.
“I’ve probably been involved in Main Street about 10 years now,” she said. “I just think they’re doing wonderful things downtown.”
Streeby has lived in Ottumwa her entire life, and she knows what it looked like at the turn of the century. The new businesses and apartments have changed the feel of the district, and she’s happy to see the changes.
The next step may be the biggest. This summer the East Main Street streetscape project begins. It will remake several blocks on East Main Street, with new sidewalks, plantings and materials designed to make the area more attractive to foot traffic.
If everything goes as planned, the literal street will undergo a renovation as thorough as the apartments being shown off on Saturday. It’s a big bet on the district’s future.
Streeby and McCoy were optimistic. They know there will be disruptions, but the payoff could be big.