Revisiting a Great American Main Street

Dubuque, Iowa: "You Never Stop Being a GAMSA!"

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A city of firsts, Dubuque is Iowa’s oldest Main Street community, Iowa’s first Great American Main Street Award winner, and the state’s first community to be named a Preserve America City. USA Today named Dubuque one of “Ten Great Places to Discover Midwest Charm,” and, in 2005, the National Trust recognized the city as one of its Dozen Distinctive Destinations.

Established in 1985 as one of the National Trust Main Street Center’s pilot urban programs, Dubuque Main Street, Ltd., (DMS) has become a major development partner in the city. The conversion of the pedestrian mall and the revitalization of both the Lower and Old Main districts are just a few examples of Dubuque’s renaissance. The public investment in downtown development has leveraged $320 million in private investment for building rehabilitation projects, façade renovations, new construction, and real estate sales, all within Dubuque’s downtown districts, resulting in a net increase of nearly 2,500 new jobs.

But Dubuque hasn’t always been a celebrated downtown. In the 1960s, the effects of suburbanization, combined with construction of new developments on the outskirts of town and the ill-conceived pedestrian mall downtown led to disinvestment in the city’s commercial core. By 1970, Montgomery Ward, Younkers, and Roshek’s — all downtown Dubuque department stores — had moved to the recently opened Kennedy Mall and most of the millwork industry had closed or moved elsewhere. The real estate vacancy rate soared to 55 percent.

An Urban Success

In 1985, the National Trust chose Dubuque as one of seven pilot cities for its Urban Main Street demonstration project. Adapting the Main Street approach to an urban environment, Dubuque Main Street helped demonstrate that the National Trust’s methodology could work in areas other than small and mid-sized downtowns and could provide structure and unity to multiple, but separate, urban districts. After 22 years of success, downtown Dubuque, the longest standing urban program, has seen a dramatic renaissance, leading the state of Iowa in Main Street investment. Dubuque Main Street has grown to include eight districts: Cable Car Square, the Couler Valley, the Historic Millwork District, Historic Old Main, Jackson Park, Port of Dubuque, Upper Main/Farmer’s Market, and the Town Clock District.

This eastern Iowa city’s national reputation for successful revitalization efforts is well deserved. When the Dubuque Main Street program was launched, downtown had an occupancy rate of 45 percent at the storefront level. In 1995, the occupancy level was an impressive 90 percent. In that same time, office rental rates had risen from $6-$8 per square foot to the $9-$11 range.

“We are a respected partner in the community development effort,” explains Claudia Jones, former program manager for Dubuque Main Street, Ltd. “Downtown has become a recognized and integral part of local development. People now view Main Street as an effective, productive part of the community.”

Since 1985, 329 new businesses and 239 business expansions and relocations have generated 2,492 jobs. At least a million tourists visit Dubuque every year, and 75 percent of these visitors stop downtown, which serves as the city’s center for arts and tourism. The district has great support from volunteers, 300 of whom contribute a total of 3,000 hours annually, helping make the downtown’s achievements possible.

“No single factor has contributed most to the effort,” says Jim Burke, who has served on the Dubuque Main Street’s board of directors for the past 10 years and works with the city’s community development department. That is the secret, he says: “Successful downtown development comes from recognizing that it doesn’t all come from one place.”

Award-winning Dubuque

Dubuque earned its Great American Main Street Award (GAMSA) in 1995; it was recognized for reviving a true spirit of community and stimulating commerce by doubling occupancy in downtown storefronts and adding 115 new businesses in the 70-block downtown district. Out of 21 cities, the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs has certified seven Main Street communities, including Dubuque, as cultural and entertainment districts — areas that encourage city and county governments to partner with local organizations, businesses, and individuals to enhance the quality of life. From May to November, more than 500 cultural events, including music shows, festivals, art exhibits, community theater productions, and symphonies, are held in Dubuque.

Winning a GAMSA was important to downtown Dubuque’s stakeholders. The award and the recognition that accompanied it put Dubuque Main Street back in the spotlight and attracted additional resources for the program.

Dan LoBianco, executive director of Dubuque Main Street, reports that downtown has acquired two ISTEA (Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act) grants since its GAMSA win. The program also received funding through the Dubuque Racing Association. According to LoBianco, GAMSA may have helped the community’s ISTEA application, and more than likely improved the program’s grant application to the racing association.

The visibility gained by winning a GAMSA has attracted additional interest in financial sponsorship of Dubuque Main Street events. The program now offers exclusive sponsorship of its events to long-time sponsors; one of these events is Dubuque… And All That Jazz! A hugely popular music festival begun in 1992, All That Jazz! is currently sponsored by Dubuque365 Regional Network. Many companies are now eager to join in on sponsoring the event so they can be associated with Main Street’s success; competition is so great for the jazz festival that interested sponsors are being directed to other DMS events and activities.

The publicity from GAMSA has also helped attract new organizational partners. DMS now works closely with the Jaycees; the two organizations trade volunteers on half a dozen projects. The Rotary Club of Dubuque and the Dubuque Lions Club are also eager project volunteers.

Sustainable Dubuque

Some recent developments for the city include its Most Livable City Award in 2008 from the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which was partly the result of a $188 million plan to turn 90 acres of the city’s port into a public space. One of Dubuque’s challenges is the existence of a major highway (U.S. 61/151) separating its riverfront from its downtown. However, a sparkling new convention center, an aquarium, a docking space for Mississippi River paddlewheel boats, and a casino have been built along the waterfront in an attempt to reclaim it.

Also completed in 2004, the conversion of the Walsh Store’s retail complex into the Heartland Financial Operations Center is just one example of the multi-million dollar “facelift” downtown Dubuque has experienced. The design challenge of the façade was met by a complete cleaning and refurbishing of the brick exterior, an investment of more than a half million dollars.

Dubuque is also going green. “Sustainable Dubuque” is the city’s new plan for smart growth. Eleven principles have been outlined to guide sustainability efforts, and in January 2009, a sustainability coordinator was hired to implement the strategies. The principles fall under three headings (Economic Prosperity, Social/Cultural Vibrancy, and Environmental Integrity) and include ideas ranging from supporting regional economic activity to protecting native plant and animal species. The Natural Resources Defense Council named Dubuque a “Smarter City” for its energy conservation efforts.

One of the most exciting undertakings is the redevelopment of the Historic Millwork District, which includes 28 buildings, with one million square feet of underutilized space. In 2009, Dubuque Main Street was chosen as one of three U.S. cities to participate in the National Trust’s pilot Preservation Green Lab project. “The 28 buildings of the 17-block warehouse district will be adaptive reuses featuring ‘permeable pavements’ and green space to control water runoff,” explains LoBianco.

The project will bring affordable housing to a historic, mixed-use setting designed to attract technology workers. The project can also be considered brownfield abatement as it is eliminating a dangerous industrial eyesore. The district will incorporate sustainable design concepts, including rainwater harvesting, community gardens, native plantings, and renewable energy.

Much of the Millwork District is owned by four developers, all of whom are willing to partner with the city to follow through with the plan for the area. Public art and renovated warehouses will figure heavily into the finished product.

In 2011, the project was in the middle of assembling a Phase One Historic Tax Credit application for property owners, developing more detailed street plans and plaza designs, securing funding for the necessary public infrastructure, and working with IDOT to reroute Elm Street. The district’s Streetscape Project received a $150,000 Iowa Great Place grant in 2009. The project master plan lists a variety of potential public and private funding sources, ranging from the Iowa Department of Economic Development to the property developers themselves. A portion of the jobs created by the project will be set aside for disadvantaged youth.

IBM recently chose Dubuque as the site of a service center, a major accomplishment for a city of its size. Dubuque was selected from a pool of 350 locations due to its commitment to public-private partnerships and sustainable development. IBM not only brought 1,300 jobs to the city, but it chose to house its operations in the restored Roshek Brothers Building.

According to LoBianco, “many of the workers attracted to these jobs prefer upper-story housing. That’s one of Dubuque Main Street’s current focuses, along with revitalization of the other old department stores and development of a regional sustainability educational center in association with the ICLEI (Local Governments for Sustainability).”

ICLEI is an association of local governments that are committed to sustainable development. The organization itself provides training and information for governments wishing to implement sustainable policies. ICLEI named Dubuque one of 30 American cities that have signed on to the organization’s climate-change study, called the Carbon Disclosure Project. Dubuque will play a role in helping ICLEI learn more about how cities contribute to global warming. LoBianco also mentions gray water reuse, light wells, green roofs, and rooftop gardens as other citywide sustainability initiatives Dubuque has put into practice.

When looking back on the Main Street program’s track record, LoBianco offers some advice for other aspiring Main Street programs. “Don’t rely on past accomplishments. Be proud of what you’ve done, but continually strive to improve the downtown. There’s always something more to do. You never stop being a GAMSA.”