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SportsPlex nears groundbreaking date

Feb. 22—OTTUMWA — First as a regular resident and then as an elected leader, Brian Morgan saw the heartbreak over the years.

Maybe, just maybe, the tide is turning.

Morgan, the chair of the Southeast Iowa Sports Commission, revealed Tuesday that bids for construction of a 66,000-square foot indoor sports complex came in under what was anticipated, with Schaus-Vorhies of Fairfield providing the lowest bid at $2.8 million. Five firms put in bids, all of them under what was expected.

Tuesday, the Ottumwa City Council approved waiving about $42,000 in building permit fees for the sportsplex because the city is both a funding partner and it will be built on city-owned property. Soon, some of that dirt will be moving.

"You look at some things outdoors, and people want to see it happen," Morgan said Wednesday about previous aspirations in the community. "But then there's the price tag behind it, and they just think it won't happen."

Morgan was determined this project wouldn't go to the dustbin. For years, he and others went through starts and stops trying to raise the $10 million to build the SportsPlex, which will be located behind The Beach in Sycamore Park. The groundbreaking is scheduled for March 18 at 10 a.m. in the park.

Just over $7 million of the cost will go toward work such as HVAC, landscaping, kitchen accessories, courts, basketball hoops and turf.

The SportsPlex will have three full-sized basketball courts, four volleyball courts, turf soccer and football fields, batting cages and more. The goal is to have the project completed by Jan. 1, but Morgan is hopeful it will be finished before then.

"Can you imagine a Midnight Madness basketball tournament in there?" he said. "Not like I think about those kinds of things."

He does, however, expect the spring and summer of 2025 to be flooded with events.

"I'm an eternal pessimist, but this is so surreal because we have the money to do this. Yet, you think there's got to be another shoe to fall," he said. "I've always been cautiously optimistic, but when I look at this, I see how it's going to benefit the city with hotel/motel tax.

"The people who doubt it will see cars in the parking lot 35 to 40 weeks of the year."

The effort to raise money for the SportsPlex started within the last five years and was interrupted when the pandemic hit. But the conversations regarding improved facilities for youth sports go back at least 20 years.

Even during this fundraising cycle, the commission was denied a Destination Iowa grant it thought it would secure, applied again, and received it last year.

However, Morgan said he has seen a lot of public backing behind projects that will improve quality of life as well as create more opportunities and revenue in the community.

"You look at the tennis courts going behind Ottumwa High School. I think the school district has done a great job taking the lead on that," he said. "I know the competition gym (across from the high school) has been on their list for a long time."

He also pointed to the visions for other large projects that never came to fruition.

"I know on the four-lane east of Indian Hills, there was a big map in the supervisors office about there being a business district. We actually had line items in our budget for economic development," he said. "I know they've worked so hard to get Helgerson Flats developed. When there were two bids for a casino, specifically the second one, was like, 'How could the state say no to this?' And they said no.

"A lot of it really is out of your control," he said. "What it takes is a lot of time, energy and some luck. This is just one part of a bigger picture here, because things like the SportsPlex grow other things. We've had a lot of people on board from the beginning, and I love all the people that have helped make it happen."

— Chad Drury can be reached at cdrury@ottumwacourier.com, and on Twitter @ChadDrury