News

Blackbird: St. Joe’s renovations still a priority

By:  Matt Milner

OTTUMWA — Blackbird Investments didn’t anticipate work on the former St. Joseph Hospital taking this long, but the company says it believes it is getting the pieces in place to move forward.

Costs have been blamed for the delays, with the initial bids coming in much higher than anticipated. Blackbird’s Ryan Doyle underscored that point during Tuesday’s update to the city council and said work at St. Joseph isn’t the only project that has seen eye-popping bids.

“It’s absolutely epidemic across the construction industry right now. Our original estimates were 25-35 percent less,” he said.

“What’s driving that cost up?” asked Councilman Marc Roe.

Doyle blamed the increases on the sheer volume of construction projects being proposed right now. More projects mean more competition for the contractors, which means those contractors can raise their prices. Blackbird anticipates spending “several million dollars for internal demolition alone.”

The unique design has brought its own surprises as well. “It’s an incredibly complex building. It’s kind of the more layers we peel back the more we find,” Doyle said.

Other delays come with state requirements for work on such a historic building. Turnover at state offices, applications for permits and tax grants available to preserve historic sites have all played a role.

Blackbird brought Matthew Coen, an architect with Walker Coen Lorentzen, to speak about the project from his perspective. Coen said the project is the kind of professional challenge architects relish.

“We’re very excited about the project. Professionally speaking there’s nothing like being involved in a project of this stature,” he said.

The project will eventually include 74 total apartments with space of up to 1,500 square feet in a unit. While the company envisions professionals, students and others all living in the complex, a rent of between $900 and $1,300 per month could be a stretch for some of the groups Doyle mentioned.

The number of apartments could also raise an issue, albeit a small one. The city initially expected 70 units, and a correction to its efforts to support the project may be needed to reflect the new number. No one anticipated difficulties in making that adjustment.

Doyle sympathized with Ottumwans who want to see faster progress on the work. It is the second-longest running project for Blackbird and no one expected that. But he thinks there will be significant progress in the near future.

“I know it seems like a long time. It is a long time,” he said.

Council members also heard a presentation from Public Works Director Larry Seals on the planned road work for 2016. Seals said many of the sites planned are “truly beyond any kind of patches. We just need to resurface.”

Overlays for the upcoming season include sections of Chester Street, Greenwood Drive, Cass Street Terrace Court and Lamborne Street. Reconstruction projects target portions of Iowa Avenue, Pennsylvania Avenue, Ferry Street, North Court Street, Hamilton Street and Sheridan Street.

The city is seeing additional funding from the state’s gas tax as a result of the increase in 2015. But the amounts never quite reach what the estimates are. That means the city targets a set of work in the spring and, if there is money left, can come back toward the end of the summer and pick up some smaller projects.

Councilman Skip Stevens asked if the alley by the Canteen might be one of the late-season projects given its importance as a landmark for Ottumwa residents and visitors.

Seals said the city looked at the alleys downtown when putting together the plans and the alley by the Canteen is not on the summer schedule. But that is the kind of project the city could come back to if funding allows.

Original by Ottumwa Courier.