Ottumwa will likely take a major step on Tuesday toward one of the most significant projects seen in the downtown area in decades. It can’t afford to get this one wrong.
On Tuesday, the city will consider a resolution to approve the plans, specifications, contract and cost for the streetscape project. Bids are due April 10, and the city hopes to award the contract on April 16.
If the project comes through as envisioned, it will be a transformative moment for Ottumwa’s downtown area. It’s hard to exaggerate the potential. It will not guarantee the success of any given business, but it will make the district much more attractive to customers and, officials hope, prospective store owners. It is, in some respects, an economic moon shot.
The facade program has been successful in transforming the buildings, at least what you see of them from the streets. Conversion of long-abandoned spaces for new apartments predates that program, and has likewise had its share of success.
But what comes next is bigger than either of those efforts. We don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say the streetscape project in the 100-300 blocks of East Main Street hold the potential to make or break downtown for the foreseeable future. It could be a crown jewel or a black eye.
The risk is real. Downtown has more businesses today than it did a decade ago. More people go downtown to eat, shop, or, perhaps most encouragingly, to hang out with friends. The progress is not set in stone, though. We cannot take it for granted.
But seeing only the risk is a mistake. The rewards are real, too. It includes full-depth replacement of the street. The sewer lines will be replaced. The buildings will get new water mains and service lines. In other words, this goes a lot deeper than the current potholes.
All the work done in the past 15 years helped lay the foundation for this project. This is a culmination of the effort so many people have put in. And, like any ambitious project, it puts that progress at risk. A setback here would be hugely damaging.
City officials share some of our concerns. We’ve spoken with some who said they fully appreciate how damaging delays would be. We believe every precaution will be taken to help keep things on track, but there are unforeseeable events that can blow the best conceived schedule right out of the water. Old city streets always conceal surprises. And the biggest wild card of all is always the weather.
Progress always has risks. There are rarely guarantees, even for the economic giants. Look at what happened in New York just last week. The city landed part of Amazon’s second headquarters, only to see the company decide it wasn’t the right fit after all.
That doesn’t mean Ottumwa should sit still. It doesn’t mean the risks aren’t worth taking. It means we should do everything we can to weigh risk, to minimize it, and to remove as many surprises as possible, then make a decision on whether to proceed.
We hope the city keeps a much tighter rein on this project than what we’ve seen with the work further down on East Main Street and the ongoing fiasco with St. Joseph Hospital. It can ill afford a project of this scale having the delays those are experiencing.
Everyone will know more in a couple months. For now, we all need to hope for the best.