When Drish Construction was tapped to complete the demolition of St. Joseph Hospital, the reaction of many Ottumwans was that they would wait and see what happened. We took the same position.
That was an entirely reasonable stance to take, given the delays and failures that had become the hallmarks of the process. Work began, moved slowly, then stopped for a year, leaving piles of rubble and a building that had been only partially demolished.
Drish had 70 working days when they resumed work in late July. It doesn’t look like they’ll need anywhere near that time. Work on the demolition is moving toward its final phases. Ottumwans said “wait and see.” Drish showed the community.
To say the work Drish has done over the past month was welcome is a considerable understatement. The concerns that the city would be saddled with the rest of the demolition amid Blackbird Investments’ ongoing conflict with the original contractor are pretty much gone. That conflict, incidentally, is still active in the Iowa courts, though it is also in arbitration.
In a month, Drish has removed the piles of rubble left on the site and brought down all but a fraction of the former hospital. It seems more likely today than at any point in the past year that the worst outcome would be a site cleared of obstructions and ready for construction, even if Blackbird walks away. And for that, Drish deserves the community’s thanks.
We understand some people may be a bit grudging about that thanks, especially those who never reconciled themselves to seeing the building demolished. But it’s important to recognize that once the decision was made and demolition began, there was no turning back.
The wait and see attitude remains valid when considering the remainder of the project. Blackbird’s record says there is never a straight line, that what it says one day may change the next. That happened with the original plans. It happened with demolition. And it could happen again.
New housing is needed in Ottumwa just as much today as it was when Blackbird first approached the city. The shortage of housing is real, and demand is no lower than it was. City officials have said they receive inquiries about the Washington Heights project, which should be completed soon, on a regular basis. The speed with which downtown apartments are snapped up by renters is impressive, and a further indicator of the city’s need for additional housing.
The best outcome for everyone would be successful completion of the new development at the former St. Joseph site. The experiences of the past few years argue for caution, though. Blackbird still has a long way to go to regain the community’s confidence.
For now the worst-case scenario, one in which the city was burdened with a multi-million dollar bill for finishing work at St. Joe’s, seems to have been avoided. It wasn’t the way this should have happened. Neighbors never should have had to look at that eyesore for as long as they did. The grounds should never have been left unkempt for as long as they were. But failing to say the situation has improved would simply be churlish, a sulking refusal to recognize reality.
And, for that, Drish does indeed deserve Ottumwa’s thanks.