One of the biggest gambles on Ottumwa’s future in recent years kicked off Monday. Crews began setting up protective barriers to separate the sidewalks in front of businesses on East Main Street from the streetscape project that will remake the road.

Disruptions are inevitable. There are a lot of parking spots that won’t be available and, unlike conditions 20 years ago, they’re now in front of businesses. Those businesses will need customers’ support as the project moves forward.

We hope people keep a couple key points in mind. First, many of the businesses in the 100-300 blocks of East Main Street have rear entrances. In most cases there’s going to be a difference between whether the business’ main entrance is accessible and whether customers have access.

Secondly, walking a block won’t hurt most people. Folks who think nothing of walking a quarter mile if they park at a mall but won’t bother with an additional 100 yards for a local shop are being ridiculous. Quit letting “I can’t park 25 feet from the door” be an excuse to hurt local businesses.

The second issue may be tougher to get around. Habits are hard to change. We get that. But this is one habit that needs to be broken.

The streetscape project has the potential to radically alter downtown Ottumwa and the perceptions that surround it. But it’s not a silver bullet. It cannot singlehandedly alter the district’s future. Any ideas along those lines are bound to result in disappointment.

What can alter the future of the downtown area is, frankly, what’s already been happening over the past decade. We’ve seen more business open downtown and, importantly, survive downtown over the past 10 to 15 years than in a very long time. The district’s key economic development leaders are focused and willing to take chances. Not all of those will pay off. There will be setbacks. But if that effort continues there is no reason the district cannot continue its rise.

The risk with the streetscape is obvious. Delays along the lines Ottumwa saw with the Market Street Bridge, the roundabouts south of Ottumwa Park, or the ongoing saga of East Main Street between Union and Vine streets, would be seriously damaging. Momentum is far easier to maintain than restart, after all.

We don’t have a crystal ball to tell whether the project will be smooth sailing or a debacle. Neither does anyone else. Anyone who says otherwise at this point isn’t being honest.

So we hope for the best. We hope the project moves ahead on schedule and without major difficulties. We hope that for the businesses affected by this work, their owners and their customers. We hope that for Ottumwa.

In the meantime if you’re a customer of a business that’s dealing with the construction, please continue to be one. Walk a little further to support them. Park in the lots behind the buildings if you have to.

Monday was only the first step in what may be a long road. We hope what we see at the end of it is an improved version of what’s there today, businesses and all.

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