The 2020 construction season is here. Weather delayed the streetscape work by a day, but it got going this week. It’s one of the higher-profile projects in Ottumwa, but Ottumwans are still in the dark about the other big one. With each day that passes, the silence at the former site of St. Joseph Hospital speaks more loudly.
Last fall, we called on the city and Blackbird to tell the people of Ottumwa what they should expect this year. The timing could not have been better from their perspectives. The long-delayed demolition of the hospital sped to a conclusion that was faster than even the most optimistic observers would have hoped. It was an opportunity to build trust by displaying the transparency when Blackbird came, chastened, to the city council last year.
It didn’t happen. The opportunity was lost.
Now, with other projects beginning to ramp up for the year, Ottumwa is left once again wondering what is going on. The situation is better than it was 12 months ago. There isn’t a ruin in place anymore — but there aren’t any answers, either.
It is indisputable that the city has treated Blackbird with kid gloves. It pressured the company for an explanation on the half-demolition only after residents had lived with it for many months and media outside the area began questioning the situation. We don’t believe it was coincidence that action only resumed when officials in Des Moines began questioning the company’s plans there and holding up Ottumwa as evidence they should be skeptical.
The city’s explanation at the time made a kind of sense. Officials said they were worried Blackbird would walk away from the project before the demolition was complete, leaving the city with the task of cleaning up. The fact that people who said they were well-informed of Blackbird’s plans and were in contact with the company raised that possibility suggests the company may have done so as well.
But that’s no longer the case. The land is, to all appearances, ready for work. If Blackbird left today the city would have a desirable site with good access, one that a dedicated developer would seemingly be able to begin work on with ease.
Yet the lack of pressure persists. There have been no calls from the council for Blackbird to lay out the 2020 timeline. There has been no effort by the company to do so.
The city has not been entirely complacent. It refused to extend the timelines for Blackbird’s tax credits, meaning the delayed demolition effectively cost the company a year’s worth of returns. And, given that the credits are prorated, it was an expensive delay.
Ottumwa needs answers. People who live around the site and whose properties are helping subsidize the project through the aforementioned credits are owed an explanation. When can Ottumwa expect work to begin? Will it begin?
If all this sounds familiar, it is. These basic questions have dogged the project for years. Any assumption Blackbird is acting in good faith has long eroded, leaving behind the assurance that Ottumwa can only trust what it sees.
The fact Ottumwa has not seen Blackbird since that meeting last May speaks volumes.
The silence, from both Blackbird and the city, is deafening.