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I was pleasantly surprised to be invited with a few travel writing friends to visit Ottumwa, Iowa. I really knew nothing about Ottumwa, and only a few thoughts came to mind: loose meat sandwichs as well as Radar O’Reilly from the M.A.S.H. television series. Was I ever in for a surprise.
A lot of midwest towns have floundered and kind of look like this bombed-out village. They have lost industry as manufacturing jobs have shifted overseas. They have had Interstate highways replace the smaller 2-lane roads that brought a lot of visitors to their communities. They have had school consolidate as people have moved away to look for work. Not all cities have had the foresight to create a thriving economy to replace what no longer works for them.
Building on agritourism, eco-friendly practices, embracing their local natural features, and encouraging small business all begin to feed on each other and create an environment that draws people. Those people bring their money and help build the economy. That leads to more jobs, increased housing, and a rapidly growing and thriving economy.
Ottumwa was facing those challenges five years ago when the new Mayor took over. The city created a series of incredible teams and committees that had the focus of pulling the “hidden gems” out of what they had. The built on them for their future with a growth mindset in their plans. From the Canteen Alley project to the downtown preservation of historic buildings in their Main Street redevelopment project. Literally working from the ground up, Ottumwa is replacing a sewer system that was initially laid in 1851 and soon to initiate their riverfront project that will make their beautiful waterways more accessible. They have the most significant amount of parks per capita in Iowa for any city and even have an indoor sports arena in the works! The vision for their future is incredible, yet they maintain the past.
Their innovative collaboration between donations, grant work, and community involvement make for a great recipe for future success – and should act as a role model for any town looking to revitalize their community.
With a population of slightly over 26,000 people, the incredible diversity of the area astounded me. Located in Wapello County, in the southeast region of the state, over fifty different countries are represented here. This is easily reflected by the incredible selection of independent restaurants and ethnic grocery stores.
You will hear more from me over the next few weeks about this incredible community of Ottumwa, Iowa. The 16 miles of river trails, the historic Ottumwa hotel, and why the Antique Airfield and Airport Museum is perfect for any aviation lover. How about why you need to experience the World-Famous Canteen Lunch for yourself, or why you should check out the Pioneer Ridge Campsites? I will even chat about the art behind the American Gothic House and Center. You will want to see what I have to say about the Wapello County Historical Museum, as that is where their riverfront project will start. There are just so many exciting things that this community has to offer that I was stunned as each new gem was revealed to me.
The Bottom Line?
My thoughts boiled down to a quick “sound bite” for you? Get your fanny to Ottumwa Iowa now – while you can experience the ground floor of a brilliantly evolving community.
You will be pleasantly surprised by things like a coffee shop whose profits fund a soup kitchen, a video game trail, amazing eats, and enough to keep any nature lover enthused. Trust me; it is worth the trip!
Other fun things in Iowa: