In Meredith Wilson’s renowned Broadway musical “The Music Man,” there is a song in which the chorus goes, “You really ought to give Iowa a try.”
It’s a feeling that many in the small town of Ottumwa have, which is why they have been hard at work at turning the town into a destination location for businesses, families and community engagement.
Situated about an hour north of Des Moines, Ottumwa (population, approximately 25,000) has seen its share of hard times over the years. Ottumwa became the hub of southeast Iowa when English meat-packing mogul John Morrell brought his U.S. Headquarters to Ottumwa in 1915. Although the slaughterhouse has changed hands a few times in the last 60-plus years and is now owned by JBS meatpacking, it, along with a John Deere manufacturing plant, remains the town’s biggest employer.
However, corporate belt-tightening with other big-name retailers, saw a lot of major businesses pull out of Ottumwa in the past decade. K-Mart, Target and J.C. Penny pulled out. M.C. Sports filed for bankruptcy and closed its doors in 2017. Herberger’s was sold to Saks Fifth Avenue, and eventually Bon-Ton, and liquidated the business in the summer of 2018 after being in operation for 91 years.
None of these decisions were a reflection on the economy in Ottumwa, but the town became a sad side story to corporate mergers and business decisions being made on a national scale.
The attitude toward Ottumwa changed too, as the center of town decayed, fewer people were interested in staying in Ottumwa and sought elsewhere to raise families, or start their small businesses.
The Ottumwa Main Street Project
To enliven this community and its residents, the Ottumwa Main Street Project began, and in the process, Fred Zesiger, executive director of Main Street Ottumwa, discovered The Better Block, a nonprofit that educates, equips, and empowers communities and their leaders to reshape and reactivate built environments to promote the growth of healthy and vibrant neighborhoods.
Ottumwa was just the kind of place The Better Block could help, but more was needed locally.
That’s when the REALTORS® stepped in.
First, Jamie Rix, the REALTOR® Party Advocacy Coordinator from the Iowa Association of REALTORS® secured a Smart Growth grant from the National Association of REALTORS® to help with the project. Then, Steve Campbell, a REALTOR® with the Southeast Iowa Association Board of REALTORS® and a resident of Ottumwa, got involved to help revitalize a portion of the downtown community and start Ottumwa on the path back to a destination town.
Along with the Chamber of Commerce, Main Street Iowa, the Iowa Economic Development Authority, and an additional grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a project began last year that would lead toward a weekend celebration in downtown Ottumwa.
Dozens of volunteers met with The Better Block to plan revitalization efforts that included improved streetscapes, outdoor seating, vibrant decorations around the city center, the rehabilitation of the long-closed Ottumwa theatre, which hosted a rock concert during the weekend event.
“It was just a good fit to bring the REALTOR® Party funding and the Better Block Project together in Ottumwa,” Rix said. “That city has so much potential, and the weekend event made that clear to so many people.”
Locals Build A Better Block
More than 150 people worked together to build the Better Block in just eight hours.
“So many people came together to really make this happen,” Campbell said. “And it seemed like overnight, our town magically turned into what we all knew it could be – a place to come together to shop, to eat, to play games and to enjoy live music.”
Before the Better Block, Ottumwa’s Main Street District has 134 buildings, out of which 41 were vacant. There also are 57 historic buildings along three blocks of Main Street, 26 of which were vacant.
During the event, pop-up shops, eateries and food trucks moved in to test the waters of what business could be like in a revitalized downtown Ottumwa.
And the event was a smashing success.
Campbell said several incubator businesses have taken root in downtown Ottumwa since the event last October. Not only that, but many of the vacant spaces on the second floors of these Main Street buildings have been converted into apartment spaces, and people are moving into them to help re-populate the area.
“This project pushed the town to believe in itself and that it can be successful,” Rix said. “With entertainment and art there, it’s drawing people in. The Better Block left its mark and the city is motivated to continue the success of that weekend.”
Revitalization so far has included rehabbing alleyways, restoring building facades to their original form, and sprucing up those apartments over the street level shops—all 55 of which are occupied today.
Additionally, local celebrity Michael Lemberger, who was a photographer who had arguably the largest individual collection of photographs – more than 1.5 million pictures currently housed at the University of Iowa library – was celebrated posthumously with his photos of everyday life in Ottumwa being turned into posters and wall art that now dot the sides of buildings and cover damaged windows and storefronts in town.
“We are so proud to be a part of this wonderful downtown revitalization project in Ottumwa,” said IAR President Carla McAtee. “Our members understand the importance of volunteerism, and this effort is extremely gratifying for all of us.”
Shortly after the Better Block, Joe’s Burgers, relocated to downtown Ottumwa. According to Better Block’s website, Jefferson Tyler, who runs Joe’s Burger cited the Better Block and the energy around downtown as a major reason for the relocation.
Blaine’s Bagel’s, a pop-up restaurant during the Better Block, opened a brick and mortar location in downtown Ottumwa in April after selling out each day of the weekend festivities last October.
The City also recently passed a bond package that included many infrastructure improvements to downtown that were tested and showcased during the Better Block.
“When you get into a downward spiral situation, you are fighting many enemies,” Campbell said. “There are negative attitudes and there are economic setbacks. It takes a lot of energy just to stop that from trending in the wrong direction. It takes even more energy to then get things moving back in the direction they should be heading. The Better Block event helped us to stop that trend. And now we seem to have the momentum to continue this revitalization ourselves. More people are walking around town. Traffic is up. We’ve doubled the number of places to eat in town from as recently as five years ago. This is a good time for Ottumwa.”
Moving forward, Ottumwa is looking for ways to utilize the specialties of their local colleges to attract even more business to town so that the college graduates will look to stay in their hometown.
“Indian Hills Community College is connected with Buena Vista University and they have tremendous programs in laser technologies and aviation repair and services,” Campbell said. “We are trying to pair them with incubator businesses and those looking to hook into our industrial airport.”
As for that song that Meredith Wilson wrote? Its title is “Iowa Stubborn.” It’s all about a small town, middle class, blue collar community, with a little bit of industry and manufacturing that wants to do more for its community – but it wants to do it in its own way.
“Yep, that’s classic Iowa,” said Rix with a laugh. “Des Moines is only an hour away and it’s pretty big – 300,000 people – so these folks could just drive elsewhere for their entertainment or their shopping or dining experiences – but the people in Ottumwa are really engaged in their community and they want these same options in their backyard.”
It seems they are well on their way.