The New Dubuque
By Mike McGrath
Back in 2009, IBM announced it was opening a technology center in Dubuque, Iowa, a move that would bring 1,300 jobs to the region. Not long afterwards, I read an editorial by a TV commentator in Madison, Wisconsin: “IBM could have located here, and chose Dubuque. That’s just not right.”
What seemed remarkable to the author the opinion piece was the notion that a small, Iowa city would be selected instead of a more recognized technology “triangle” or “corridor,” but it wasn’t much of a surprise to me. Dubuque was an all-America city winner in 2007 and I knew that it was an unusually innovative community. What it lacked in glitz and cachet, it more than compensated for with pluck, organization and civic spirit.
To be selected a finalist for All-America City Awards each community must submit an application that tells its story and describes three community-improvement projects and Dubuque had quite a dramatic story. In 1985, it had one of the highest levels of unemployment in the country, upward of 23 percent. The city’s largest employer, John Deere, recently had shut its doors, and residents were leaving in droves. Old-timers remember when a joker put up a billboard outside town that said: “Will the last person to leave Dubuque please turn out the lights?”
A few years later, the city undertook an ambitious public planning process called Vision 2000, in which citizens from across the region met to lay out a road map for economic recovery: The vision that emerged was a “diverse and balanced economic base that provides job security for all segments of the community … secured through the support, retention, recruitment of retail, manufacturing, hi-tech, services, year-round tourism, recycling businesses and industries.”
Focusing on bringing in new industry – insurance, technology, publishing, health care, education and tourism – Dubuque rose to No. 1 among Iowa’s metro centers for job growth. A revitalized waterfront with hiking trails, restaurants, a museum and an aquarium reconnected the city with one of its great resources, the Mississippi River.
Vision 2000 was the first of four strategic planning processes that took place in Dubuque over about a dozen years, the latest being Envision 2010 in 2005, when thousands of residents convened to dream up 10 “big” ideas for the future.
One of those ideas was for downtown Dubuque to be a “cool” place to live, where people surf the Internet and chat in cafes with original art hanging on exposed brick walls, a place that would draw young professionals away from Chicago and the Twin Cities because of its combination of livability, affordability and opportunity.
“It all started in the 1980s when people decided we had reached the bottom and collectively wanted to make it a better community,” said Mayor Roy Buol. “The new Dubuque, that’s what I call it. People really bought into the idea. There was a common desire to better the community and make it place where everybody has opportunities, a place people want to come, and when they do come, to stay.”
Last year, when we were doing a special issue of the National Civic Review on environmental sustainability, Dubuque’s name came up again—as a case study in community-wide successful environmental sustainability planning. Again I wasn’t surprised.
Few, if any, winners of the All-America City Award have exemplified the spirit of regional cooperation, civic engagement and community innovation more effectively than Dubuque. It’s a story that we love to tell and tell again.
Is there a similar story of rebirth and rejuvenation for your town that you would like to share? Please do let us know, we would love to hear about it.
Mike McGrath is senior editor and chief information officer for the National Civic League. A former newspaper reporter and magazine writer, he is editor of the quarterly National Civic Review, which will be beginning its centennial year of publishing this spring.
Mike’s posts will appear every Thursday on the State of the Re:Union website.