When is enough going to be enough? Which broken promise, which delay, which simpering apology will finally be the point at which Ottumwa’s city government tells Blackbird to flap off?
Blackbird’s sorry history in Ottumwa is one of delays, broken promises and failure. Blackbird arrived in 2014 with plans to renovate the former St. Joseph Hospital and transform it into new housing. In March 2016 the company said the site was already its second-longest running project. In August 2017, Blackbird said it needed to tear down the hospital.
When that first promise was broken, the explanation was reasonable. The hospital was built so solidly that the work of renovation, of knocking out walls and redesigning spaces, was cost prohibitive. Demolition, while sad to see, was the only real alternative.
But look at all the time that was already lost. Asbestos removal, a necessary step for both rehabilitation and demolition, only began in March 2018 — four years after the initial plans were announced.
In April 2018 Blackbird spoke to the Noon Kiwanis and said they expected families would begin to move into townhomes at the site in the spring of 2019. Instead, demolition wasn’t even finished. That work stalled out in the summer of 2018 and didn’t resume until July of last year.
In the interim, chastened Blackbird officials came before the city council in May 2019. Harry Doyle called the appearance “the first step in rebuilding a strained relationship.” The visit was a festival of clichés, including “hindsight is always 20/20,” and “we take full responsibility.”
It wasn’t just the fact the hospital stood as a partially-demolished ruin that was straining the relationships, it was the fact Blackbird hadn’t even bothered to maintain and mow the grounds. While demolition was finished with remarkable speed, it represented yet another broken promise. The city’s incentive contract with Blackbird had a demolition completion date of Sept. 1, 2018.
But at least the land was cleared. At least Ottumwa could no longer, as officials said they feared, be left with the burden of finishing demolition. Surely things would speed up.
We called on the city and Blackbird to present a timeline last fall for when work would resume. Blackbird, predictably, hid. We had higher hopes for the city council and mayor, but they failed to press the issue.
Now, the website Blackbird set up to promote the project has gone dark, taken down after the domain registration apparently expired. Blackbird hadn’t even bothered to inform the mayor, who has been the company’s most consistent supporter. In fact, Mayor Tom Lazio said Monday the company hasn’t even bothered to return two phone calls he made since finding out the website was down.
While St. Joseph Square remains on Blackbird’s website and on a Facebook page set up by the company, hoping this newest development represents anything other than another broken promise would be foolish. Even Des Moines has expressed concerns about the company’s trail of missed deadlines on projects there.
Blackbird’s credibility is shot. It’s gone. It would be little short of a miracle if Ottumwa saw anything resembling any of its grandiose promises come to fruition. Actions matter, not words, and action is where Blackbird consistently falls flat.
That’s reality. That’s where things stand. There’s only one question left for city leaders, one they should have answered a long, long time ago: When is enough going to be enough?