Courier Staff Writer
The Ottumwa Regional Legacy Foundation is overflowing with ideas of how to revitalize the city, but city councilmen want to make sure the public is involved in the discussion.
In an update to the city council Monday on what’s brewing at ORLF, its president and CEO, Brad Little, said he hopes to create a dialogue, not a monologue, about what they’re trying to accomplish.
As part of ORLF’s strategic plan, Little said he wants the organization to be thoughtful in how it grants its allotted $3 million to $3.5 million. “Before giving one penny away,” he said they want to tackle site visits and studying existing strategic plans.
So far, ORLF staff have visited six Iowa cities, Sterling and Rock Falls, Ill., Suisun City, Calif. and Chattanooga, Tenn.
“These are communities that had experienced some sort of ‘worst of’ moment in their history,” Little said. “They reached some sort of low that they were struggling with and were pulled up by their bootstraps.”
He said ORLF staff have learned best practices from these communities that they can bring back to Ottumwa.
“If there’s anything we’ve learned, it’s that Ottumwans have had a lot of great ideas over the years,” he said of his review of former strategic plans. “For reasons of all sorts ... many were not able to be implemented.”
ORLF hired consultants to compile a report on where Ottumwa stands in terms of infrastructure, streets, buildings and more. They found 15 central themes flowing through every strategic plan they examined, including eliminating one-way streets downtown, expanding Central Park and re-engaging the Des Moines River, among others.
“We’ll take ideas that have shown up over time, put legs to them and see if they have merit,” Little said.
He also said one-on-one conversations are needed throughout the community in order to bounce ideas off each other.
But Councilman Mitch Niner had concerns that there hasn’t been much, if any, public input.
“In the conversations I’ve had with you, you’ve stressed public input, public input, public input,” Niner said. “Have you had any public meetings?”
No, Little said, but ORLF has held meetings with target groups with more “manageable” numbers of 15 to 25 people.
“Our plan is to have a very public meeting at Bridge View in late spring or early summer where we’ll start vetting these [ideas],” Little said.
Niner was also concerned that only downtown was being targeted for revitalization and that the rest of the city would be left behind or ignored.
“There’s a reason why it’s targeted, and we’ve learned best practices from other communities and that’s to celebrate your history,” Little said. “Communities we’ve visited with a river ... that’s where it began. Embrace the river. You need to take the river and maximize that as the focal point of the community.”
He also said it’s important to embrace downtown because “it all starts downtown and then moves out.”
“It doesn’t mean we neglect other parts of the city,” Little said. “Right now, I admit, in black and white we’re focusing on the downtown area and how do we make it a more vibrant and attractive place.”
Little also said he doesn’t want ORLF to morph into the “community checkbook,” where it simply throws money at problems to fix them. He wants the organization to be heavily involved in bettering the community.
“When it’s appropriate,” Little said ORLF will go public with its plans since in the end they will require public support.
Today, Little said ORLF is working with the city on advancing initiatives, including the CDBG facade grant application this month, the CDBG adaptive re-use application in February and the Ottumwa Brownfields Project Team.
The organization has also hired SRF Consulting, of Minneapolis, to complete studies on one-way streets downtown and quiet zones. ORLF is also partnering with Iowa State University’s College of Design on a housing study and a way-finding study next month.
They have also launched a $30,000 micro-loan program and have retained control of the former Capri V Theatre downtown for rehabilitation.
Councilman Brian Morgan suggested that as ORLF continues in its process that it invite all councilmen to join in on the discussion.
“I would like to see us ... be involved in the process,” Morgan said. “As people talk to us, it would be a lot easier for us to ... answer first-hand on a lot of this stuff.”
News from the rest of Monday’s work session will appear online at www.ottumwa.com or in Wednesday’s edition.