There can be no question today that Blackbird Investments has not been forthcoming with Ottumwa about the debacle at the former St. Joseph Hospital. Rather than demolishing the building, Blackbird has demolished its own reputation.
Elder Corporation, the company hired by Blackbird to do the work, has asked the courts to force the sale of the property to pay what it said is a $1.58 million bill owed by Blackbird. Blackbird has challenged the claim.
What Blackbird didn’t challenge, couldn’t challenge, is the fact it wasn’t doing the work. It set up a limited liability corporation, 312 East Alta Vista LLC, to insulate it from any problems. Whether Blackbird itself had any skin in the game, as it loudly proclaimed back when it was still answering questions, is doubtful.
It cannot hide from the fact that in January 2018, shortly before the company said it had acquired the site, it mortgaged the land. The court documents don’t give terms for that mortgage, so it’s unclear exactly how much that deal was for. But it certainly raises questions about whether Blackbird was using the St. Joseph property to fund its higher-profile work in Des Moines and other locations.
That work is now itself imperiled, at least in part because of the disastrous handling of the project here. Officials in Des Moines have openly questioned the company’s ability to complete promised work.
Council members here certainly weren’t kept informed of the situation. How much Mayor Tom Lazio knew about it is unclear. He mentioned the issue Tuesday, saying at the end of the council meeting that Blackbird told him they were in negotiations with the contractor.
Has Blackbird acted in bad faith? Council members we spoke with on Friday shied away from that description. But it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that Blackbird told the city only what it wanted to, and that Ottumwa officials were willing to accept its explanations at face value.
On April 20, we said on this page the city’s leadership needed to decide whether it was willing to stand up for the people who elected it. We said they needed to demand a public accounting from Blackbird. That has not happened.
When we raised questions in past editorials, we were publicly attacked by council members and the mayor. That didn’t happen this last time, and the reason is clear. The dawning skepticism about this project’s future had finally broken through. Even the most steadfast supporters of Blackbird now harbor doubts.
Ottumwa needs answers. Ottumwa needs a path forward, one that may require the use of city statutes to compel action to clean up this mess.
There can be no place left to hide. The project’s future, cloudy for months, now looks even less promising. Council members are right to worry, as several did Friday, about whether the city will be left holding the bag with this fiasco.
Council elections are later this year. The city’s elected leadership has much to answer for.