A few weeks ago Steve Dust, CEO of the Ottumwa Regional Legacy Foundation, made a presentation to the city council about proposed riverfront developments. Our editorial board met just a couple days later, and decided to invite him to make a similar presentation.
Schedules worked out so that, late last week, we heard from Dust about the plans. He was joined by Mayor Tom Lazio and Kevin Flanagan, the city’s head of planning and development.
The plans are unquestionably ambitious. If successful, the project would go a long way toward redefining downtown Ottumwa and creating a showcase for visitors as well as potential residents and businesses.
The presentation left our board with a lot of questions, though, and the city should be cautious as it proceeds. This is not yet a project that warrants an endorsement from us or from the city.
The concept promises new green space, a renewed and renovated train station, and new housing along the riverfront. Dust said the goal is to emphasize the importance of the riverfront to Ottumwa. When he says the community under-utilizes it, he has a point. Few efforts beyond the trails network, which has quietly become quite successful, have done much to take advantage of the waterway that in many ways defines Ottumwa.
But when you dig into the details, such as they are, questions remain. Lazio said Amtrak has plans for renovating the train platform, which it has allowed to degenerate into a rusty eyesore. It is unquestionably needed. The pace at which Amtrak moves is glacial, however, so we’re skeptical that anything will come of those plans for quite some time.
Last week’s presentation took pains to note a steering committee is working on the plans, not just Legacy. But when we looked at the steering committee itself, we saw many familiar names and little evidence it had made an effort to bring in elements of the community beyond those already involved in economic development and similar projects. When we asked how organizers would seek inclusion and avoid the kind of community fissures that have marked projects like Bridge View, the answer was lacking. We are not convinced supporters understand the need to reach out early in the process.
The development would also consume a significant portion of the city’s hydro parking lot. That lot has been the city’s safety valve when asked about downtown parking. Officials could reasonably point to a large lot that was underutilized and within an easy walk of downtown businesses. They have said, correctly, that most of the lots are not full most of the time. But the reality is that statement applies to the vast majority of parking in any city. You can’t just plan for the average and ignore times of high demand. The absorption of such a significant amount of parking give us pause.
Other communities have indeed seen success with projects along the lines of what is envisioned here. It is critical that the city choose its partners carefully. A good developer is essential. Ottumwa can ill-afford another Blackbird, especially in such a high-visibility area.
Perhaps the most important thing is that Legacy, the city, and others involved in the steering committee guard against becoming overly enamored of their own propaganda. Nothing will undermine their positions faster than spinning setbacks as progress or promising perfection. To borrow the words of former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan, supporters must ensure they do not indulge in “irrational exuberance.”
None of these questions are currently so serious that they should halt further exploration of these proposals. None mean we oppose it, either. Our board found the plans intriguing. Elements of it, such as capturing the power generated by the city’s hydro dam for a green district, make a great deal of sense.
The questions do mean more information is needed. More specifics need to be nailed down. Dust said there have been updates to the plans since the presentation he gave was developed. Those might answer some of the questions, but they cannot do so until they are revealed.
At this point we are not prepared to endorse or discourage the riverfront development plans. We will watch with great interest, though, to see whether it warrants being revisited in the coming months.