Ottumwa has been a city in transition for more than 40 years. From a peak population of almost 34,000 in 1960, by 2000, it had lost close to 9,000 residents, a little over a quarter of its population. The town took a number of blows, but it fought back.
Today, this city of about 25,000, is a regional hub for health care, education, manufacturing and recreation. A mall just outside of town attracts regional shoppers, while some buildings downtown are being renovated.
The Bridge View Center down by the river is part of that new Ottumwa.
Dale Uehling, Mayor, Ottumwa: “We just feel it’s a part of what we’re trying to do to improve the quality of life for the, all the citizens here in southeast Iowa. And we look at this as a regional facility.”
Bridge View opened on New Year’s Eve, 2006.
Getting it built created some controversy in this town. There were disagreements over funding and disagreements over whether the town even needed it.
For example, the 1930s Coliseum Armory was torn down to make way for Bridge View. Some people here thought the Coliseum was good enough for Ottumwa’s needs and was a historic venue. Others didn’t.
Then, there was the money to build Bridge View. Vision Iowa, which provided 7.5 million dollars, required that the city and the county partner up. That was an uneasy alliance. And construction costs, which were supposed to total 20.5 million, ran over by about a million and a half.
The fact is Bridge View exists now, and it’s working to serve all of the community.
This 92,000 square foot facility does that in various ways, including paying homage to the past with the use of these adornments salvaged from the original coliseum.
The eagle motif from the old coliseum isn’t surprising. It was originally built as an Armory for the 113th Cavalry. And Bridge View repeated the theme with an impressive eagle mosaic on the floor in the main hallway. Historic yes, but with the real thing often just outside the window, it’s a legitimate symbol for Bridge View, which hosted an Eagle Walk the weekend before we visited.
The outside plaza, framed by two bridges, one on the National Register, along with the lobby areas, can be used for a variety of different gatherings. And Bridge View can cater them.
There’s the 30,000 square foot Expo Hall, which in addition to providing a venue for winter soccer, has featured events as diverse as the County 4-H Expo, formal dinners, dances, performers, and much more.
There are all sorts of places to hold meetings, including the 655-seat theatre. But it is a first-class theatre that hosts professional artists and shows.
All together, Bridge View is a community center.
Jon Elbaum, General Manager, Bridge View Center:
“We want to be a cultural resource, an economic resource, we want to drive visitors to the area. We need to be resource for corporate uses. So we have to really meet a lot of different needs in the community to truly fulfill our mission.”
Gregg Clubb, President, Ottumwa Community Players: “We've had times we're putting on a play and there's a dance in the exhibit hall and there might be a, a wedding reception in one of the breakout rooms. It's pretty neat to be able to see all these things happening at one time in this building.”
”So we’re going to start on page ten.”
Bridge View is now home to the Ottumwa Community Players which, for decades after its founding in the mid-1950s, performed in different venues around town. When we stopped by they were working on a production in an unfinished part of Bridge View.
The Players rent storage space and have a scene shop, prop and costume room here. They put on three productions a year. And there’s a children’s wing which does two to three shows.
Gregg Clubb, President, Ottumwa Community Players: “Bridgeview is our first home. So it's the first place we've ever had everything we own and done all of our auditions and our rehearsals and our performances here. So that's, that's a pretty major thing for us to be able to do that. “
Jon Elbaum, General Manager, Bridge View Center: “It's actually a great partnership that we forged with them. And they provide us both with programming with their own performances, but they also provide us with a valuable labor pool that we can draw from to help staff the other performances that we have here.”
It’s basically a win win situation for the community theater people and Bridge View. And other community performing arts groups use the theater as well.
Just in its third year, so far, Bridge View’s operating expenses have run about 1.1 M a year – revenues about $750,000. An endowment covers a fourth of the difference, which means that the tax payers cover about $260,000.
And in fact, many facilities such as this don’t fully pay for themselves.
Put simply, centers like this are no small undertaking. And unlike the famous line in the movie, just building it doesn’t mean people will come.
“Enjoy the show, thanks for coming.”
It takes work, and that’s what Bridge View is doing, learning what the public will pay to see and do, whether it’s in the Expo Hall or the theatre, where we were backstage on opening night with the Ottumwa Community Players.
Jon Elbaum, General Manager, Bridge View Center: “We get feedback. We solicit feedback both on our website and I certainly get phone calls all the time, people interested in bringing certain artists here. And we try different things. We're still relatively new and we see what works.”
“There are people that have never been here that are in the audience tonight.”
Dale Uehling, Mayor, Ottumwa: “We're the largest facility between Des Moines and Burlington as you go those directions and Cedar Rapids and Iowa City in that direction. So we have the potential to draw in, we think, from around a population of 140- to 160-thousand people.”
Additional Images: Michael W. Lemberger Collection, Bridge View Center, Ottumwa Community Players