OTTUMWA — The City of Ottumwa is going full-speed ahead as it seeks to address its housing and economic development issues.

During a work session at Tuesday's special city council meeting at City Hall, city director of planning and development Zach Simonson outlined his responsibilities when it comes to code enforcement, and housing and development. It was the first of several sessions expected to take place in which city staff discuss their roles and take questions from council members and leadership.

While code enforcement, which many on the council and mayor Rick Johnson believe needs to have more teeth, Simonson also discussed some items in the pipeline that are expected to take place or be brought before council at some point this year.

The city is looking at three main programs to address housing and offer incentives to residents. Most would be funded through capital improvement, American Rescue Plan funds or other opportunities:

Make Ottumwa Home

The program would allow the city to work with community partners to develop incentives for anyone who builds a new single-family home. Simonson said the goal is to include a one-time, $10,000 economic development grant in the package at the time of closing for a home that appraises at more than $125,000.

He said city staff has requested $150,000 in ARP funding to launch the program.

"We'd also be interested in looking for partners that might be able to match that, but really, we're competing with communities that have been doing this for a while," he said.

Ottumwa Block Challenge

Essentially, this program would give a boost to the Healthy Neighbors program. There's been a consensus that that program isn't rewarding enough collectively in neighborhoods, and Simonson said most of the participants have been individuals.

"This proposal would increase the size of the grant, but also require neighbors to work together to create change block by block," Simonson said. "I don't think Healthy Neighbors has quite caught on in the direction we wanted. The idea was that we were going to provide direct matching grants to folks to make exterior home improvements."

Simonson said the city should consider a program like Invest DSM, a Des Moines housing program that provides up to a $2,500 grant match, contingent on the neighbors working together.

Though Simonson believes housing should be the focus of the program, council member Russ Hull offered another option.

"If someone has an empty lot and they're trying to improve it, could they make it like a little community park thing? Could that work?" he asked.

"I think that's an interesting one and a really neat application," Simonson said. "I think that's something that could definitely be on the table as well."

House America

Simonson said the city had been approached by Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for the program, which seeks to accomplish two things: lifting families and individuals out of poverty and adding new units of affordable housing.

The city would have to set and track the goals it determines this year for both the number of families it wants to bring out of poverty, and the number of affordable housing that could be established. The city then could receive additional federal funding by scoring points for being a part of the program.

More economic development

Simonson also touched on several economic development projects either in the works or that council will have to make decisions on this year.

He said the development of a master plan for Greater Ottumwa Park, which was approved late last year, will be coming more into focus this year. One site visit was conducted in December, but there is still uncertainty about what the design plans will look like and what recommendations will be made. There also will be community surveys and stakeholder meetings.

Simonson said the Bonita Avenue housing development is coming along well, and the Bridge View Center hotel will likely break ground this year.

However, other projects are also starting to gain traction:

Railport Relocation

This project is a partnership between GOPIP and French-Reneker to relocate the existing railport at the foot of some of the streets funneling toward the river from Ottumwa High School. It includes potentially establishing a new grade crossing across the Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks.

"It's still a little bit too sensitive to share publicly, but a lot of this right now is either industrial, vacant or underutilized," Simonson said. "Relocating the existing railport would free up quite a bit of space near downtown that could be suitable for some nicer, more mixed-use or downtown-friendly development."

He also said with some cleanup, high school students could cross the pedestrian bridge straight to the high school instead of a longer route they currently take.

"That could be a really neat place for people to be and live," Simonson said.

Ottumwa Regional Airport Study

GOPIP is also in partnership with Bolton-Menk to develop a master plan for growth at the airport, as it will look at infrastructure needs and opportunities for business at the airport.

"Hopefully this will clarify, and ideally settle once and for all, what the authority is of the Federal Aviation Administration in having oversight over property we own right now," Simonson said. "One thing that's been really frustrating is we've got two property owners or small businesses that are interested in getting property at the airport. They came to me more than eight months ago, they got an appraisal done, and the FAA just started to respond the inquiry last week."

Church Street Historic Survey

GOPIP is pursuing funding from John Deere to complete a historic survey of the Church Street area, which includes an environmental review that could aid in the city pursuing grants for the street's projects quicker and easier, and to develop design work "that is more harmonious with the district."

"The grant funding would be for facades and things like downtown," Simonson said. "This isn't a side project, but it's just as much of a core part of our part of our downtown work as Main Street. It would continue to bridge that gap between our side of the river Main Street area and our Main street area."

Wildwood Commercial Development

A possible multi-tenant strip rental project would be built on land adjacent to Kohl's. The owner of the property has already begun producing a development plan and preparing a financing package, Simonson said, and that area is in an existing urban renewal area and could be eligible for tax-increment financing.

"We're looking at some possibilities including an up-front economic development grant of $75,000 as well as a 10-year sliding scale abatement for the project," he said. "As more details of that come together, we'll bring more of that to the council, but it would be an opportunity to bring some new retail to that area. It looks promising."

CBC low-to-moderate housing

The former Agassiz school, which is located on the National Registry of Historic Places, and a greenfield location on Asbury Avenue, both zoned as multi-family residential development and owned by CBC Financial Corporation, are candidates for housing.

The corporation is aiming to submit one of the locations for an Iowa Finance Authority tax credit, which provides federal tax credits for housing developments where a certain portion of the units are occupied by tenants in select income categories.

"(CBC) owns those two properties, and has an option to purchase a third, but we can't quite talk about that publicly yet," Simonson said. "The council would be involved in providing a recommendation to IFA for that project, and any other incentives would also come to the council as well."

The council also briefly discussed the Blackbird project at St. Joseph Square. At this point, the developer could not complete the minimum improvements of the development agreement in a timely matter as the land sits vacant, Simonson said.

"It's an empty lot and a lot of empty promises right now," city administrator Philip Rath said. "The city's not locked into anything, but there isn't any motivation for them to sell that.

Johnson was pleased with the strides being made in terms of housing and economic development as the wheels are in motion for addressing shortages on both fronts.

"There's some great things happening, and I think it's really important to educate the community on the great things that are in the works," he said.

Simonson agreed.

"The parks plan is a great example," he said. "We're going to look at a lot of different approaches to collecting public input, even hearing from young people and children about what they want from the parks. Just getting out in the community more is definitely a goal."

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

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