Dubuque: An Old Industrial River Town Redefines Itself
Although officially claimed by Iowa, Dubuque’s unique geographic location on the Mississippi River at the juncture of Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin made it a longtime tri-state manufacturing powerhouse and a key port city.
However, by the 1980s Dubuque faced hard times. The community suffered when local manufacturers experienced an economic downturn, and few residents were able to avoid the slump. A sizable portion of downtown Dubuque took on the blighted look of so many older industrial cities. Perhaps worst of all, the local population and visitors alike felt disconnected from the city’s prime natural asset, the Mississippi River. The Port of Dubuque was plagued by an outsized industrial presence, brownfields and limited public access.
In the early 1990s a unique partnership of state and local organizations emerged to put Dubuque back on track. America’s River set out to revitalize the economy and reenergize community spirit. Partner groups, including the city of Dubuque, Dubuque Area Chamber of Commerce and Dubuque County, focused on riverfront renewal, starting with efforts to develop riverside property for public use. The initiative was aided by the Dubuque County Historical Society’s decision to expand its Mississippi River Museum.
By the start of the 2000s Dubuque’s revival was well underway. In addition to ongoing riverfront development, other projects soon followed suit. These included revitalization of the city’s warehouse district, infrastructure improvements, and planned and managed growth.
The outside world soon took notice. Dubuque became one of three cities, including San Francisco and Seattle, designated a Preservation Green Lab Community by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Site Selection magazine ranked the city a “2008 Top Ten Metro” among those with a population of less than 200,000. (In 2008 Dubuque’s population was estimated at 57,250, making it the eighth-largest city in the state.) U.S. News declared the city “has managed a striking two-decade turnaround…. Along the way, Dubuque has set the pace for job growth in Iowa and rediscovered a long-ignored asset: the river, which runs wide and beautiful here.”
Manufacturing continues to play a major role in the Dubuque economy, but thanks to a concerted effort to diversify, the region today also is home to growing health-care, education and financial-services sectors. Tourism, technology and publishing are among the largest and fastest-growing industries. Longstanding area manufacturing stalwarts, including John Deere and Hormel, now are joined by IBM, McGraw-Hill and McKesson. Dubuque’s inspired reinvention offers hope to other older industrial cities that are seeking a way to recapture their former prosperity.