The city is on shaky ground if it embraces the riverfront revitalization plan being pushed by the Ottumwa Regional Legacy Foundation right now. It should wait to proceed, even if that delays the project by a year or more.
There is no way a move forward can look good if it comes hard on the heels of the a budget that enacts cuts to public safety. That isn’t necessarily the fault of those supporting the project But it is inevitable that major projects will be compared, often unfavorably, as a want rather than the unquestionable need of public safety.
There’s another factor that makes action now very questionable. The structure of the current council meetings, enforced by the need for social distancing and the spread of the COVID-19 virus, does not lend itself easily to people voicing concerns or opposition to a project.
The city on Tuesday made time for a presentation by Steve Dust from the Legacy Foundation. While noted on the agenda, the presentation was covered as an “Update on Build Grant proceedings.” That’s technically accurate, but seems designed specifically to limit the public’s understanding of what was actually coming.
Dust presented little that was new compared to December 12, when he, Mayor Tom Lazio and Kevin Flanagan, the city’s planning and development director, met with the Courier’s editorial board. To say the board was unconvinced of the project’s wisdom projections is a significant understatement. If the presentation was a sales pitch, board members weren’t sold.
We do not doubt the motives of those who are pushing this project. We think they genuinely believe the work could help Ottumwa and boost both appearances and opportunities. But both the timing and the city’s finances are against them.
The reality is that there is little reason for Ottumwans to be optimistic about grand proposals. The city’s recent track record with such promises is abysmal. The Washington Heights apartments were indeed built, but the development at St. Joseph remains a vacant lot. There can be little hope of change there, despite promises that the long-delayed construction would begin this spring. And the partner the city had last fall for construction of a hotel at Bridge View Center has backed out, leaving the city with little hope of quick fulfillment of that long-held goal.
Action on such an expensive step should only be taken after the general public has more of an opportunity to weigh in than is allowed by a call-in number or written comments on a slip delivered to the door at City Hall. Such steps, while necessitated by the current situation, are woefully inadequate to the task when it comes to such large amounts of money being spend on a non-essential project.
Let’s think about what happens if there is broad opposition to an issue using the current means. Assuming the city’s feed of its meetings always works (audio did on Tuesday, but there were repeated glitches with the video), and assuming a significant number of people watch the feed to know when to call in, there would inevitably be a bottleneck as people try to call the single phone number available. That would discourage repeated attempts for people to have their say.
We understand Dust’s sense of urgency during Tuesday’s session. Deadlines are approaching. And it’s understandable that waiting holds little appeal to those who have already invested significant time and effort into getting to this stage.
It’s not all the city’s fault, or that of Legacy. No one expected a pandemic or the attendant disruption it would cause. This, though, is the wrong project, at the wrong price and, more than anything, at the wrong time.