A group of local business owners are working with the Ottawa Area Chamber of Commerce to develop and submit a downtown economic development services proposal for city commissioners to consider.

The decision to present a shared plan resulted from a meeting earlier this month where a group of 35-40 individuals - mainly downtown business owners - gathered in the Ottawa Memorial Auditorium basement to ask questions, discuss their concerns and air their frustrations.

In September, Ottawa City Manager Richard Nienstedt presented a draft proposal request to city commissioners, seeking downtown economic development services. The call for proposals came on the heels of a months-long examination of the Ottawa Main Street Association earlier this summer, which included an audit and cut in funding. The program has existed since the early 2000s.

During a June study session, Ottawa Main Street Director Lenni Giacin and Cathy Sutton, Main Street president, met with commissioners to review the results of an audit and discussed their plans for the program. A week later, Giacin and Sutton were back before the commission, detailing the services the organization provided to downtown businesses. Also discussed was a $24,000 deficit in the community services budget.

City officials explained how the local Main Street program was being supported by multiple budget fund transfers, and, if that continued, the operational budgets in those areas would be dramatically affected. City officials would later approve a funding agreement with Ottawa Main Street from July 1 through the end of the year. The $11,846 agreement was approximately $3,154 lower than the stipend the organization normally receives for the same six-month time period. Previous funding for a similar period totaled $15,000 or $2,500 per month.

The intent behind the proposal was to attract applicants interested in providing downtown economic development services for the 2020 calendar year in place of the local Main Street program. The individual or group with the winning proposal would also be responsible for managing Legacy Square’s day-to-day operations.

When the idea for a proposal was first discussed, it didn't take long for local business owners Shawn Turner, co-owner of Turner Flowers and Country Store, to team up with Kyle and Mary Raley, who own and operate Maggie’s Popcorn, located across the street the flower shop. The three started talking with other downtown businesses, and eventually, began discussing their ideas with Sutton and other members of the board.

“What we quickly saw was the list of items they generated organically fit perfectly with the four tenets of national Main Street Association,” Turner said. “They let us know we were on the right track. Those conversations continued, and then John Coen with the chamber reached out and said the chamber wanted the same things that Main Street wants - economic vitality in the downtown, buildings full, businesses well-visited and having a consistent face that everyone up and down Main Street can familiarize themselves with.”

Because officials knew there was interest, commissioners agreed to have the proposal request advertised. Those proposals are due Friday.

During the Oct. 14 meeting at the OMA, Turner told local business owners that he, along with the Raleys and Coen, were looking for feedback on the issue.

“The majority of us in this room have some vested interest in downtown,” he said. “We own buildings, or we own businesses. We work in businesses, or we like to shop those businesses and we want to see, not just our own individual businesses, but the entire district prosper. What we’re looking for from up here is feedback, as far as, if we are on the right track; do we have the pieces you want to see.”

Coen, president/CEO of the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce, said he appreciated being included in the conversation and the chance to work together.

“I’ve been Impressed with the synergy that’s been created downtown,” Coen said. “I believe this is an opportunity to really do some things. If we’re at odds with each other, it’s not good for our community.”

While some business owners questioned why it had taken so long for the chamber and Main Street Association to come together, others asked organizers if they thought a partnership would work.

“I think, in some form or fashion, you all need to take a look at what failed in the past,” Joe Riggins, co-owner of The Goat Milk Soap Store, said. “On a cursory level, not a deep dive, (take a look) because if we can’t learn why things failed in the past, then how do we prevent it from happening in the future? I think both groups have a lot of trust to re-earn. How do we prevent that from happening? How do we turn ourselves into one family? So I think, at least on a cursory level, there does need to be some rescoping into what happened in the past to try to prevent it.”

Turner acknowledged the problems in the past, but told the group that rehashing the past wasn’t productive.

“At the end of the day, we can talk about these historical pieces, but it’s not going to get us to tomorrow,” he said. “It’s not going to get us to next year. It’s not going to get us five years down the road...the only way that we’re going to be a community and have everybody working together is if we are truly cooperating and working together.”

In the end, local business owners supported the chamber and Main Street coming together to submit one proposal.

Following the meeting, Turner said he was pleased with the meeting, and thought it went well.

“There’s a lot of history with both organizations, and it’s going to take setting a lot of context to bring everyone together on the same page and moving in the same direction,” he said. “By the end of the night, every hand that went in the air was in favor of the groups working hand in hand, so we will do what we can to move that vision forward.”

Organizer Mary Raley said she felt the meeting went better than expected, and yielded several ideas and suggestions.

“We feel we have a strong working relationship with the chamber, and look forward to working with them in the near future,” she said. “We want our downtown to thrive and be the place for the community to shop, and people from out of town as well. We would love for Ottawa to be a destination for customers to come and (support) our stores. Ottawa has so much to offer and is growing all the time. We are excited to see what the future holds.”

As of press time Monday, a special meeting of the local Main Street Association was planned for Monday evening. Items on the agenda included a presentation of the proposal and the discussion of the program director’s future role. The newest members of the Main Street board of directors include Becky Hastings, Shawn Turner, Julie Riggins, Cathy Skeet, Jason Berve, Mary and Kyle Raley.