Meet Bob Brueck. In 1976, after 22 years as a pressman for a local newspaper, he reinvented himself by founding a one-man construction company in Burlington, Iowa. Today, his company employs a crew of 24, including four of his ten children. While Brueck Construction is well known all over southeastern Iowa for its construction and remodeling expertise, Mr. Brueck himself is best known for the way in which he has reinvented his hometown.
A century ago, the Mississippi River community of Burlington (population 26,500) was a lively steamboat port and a bustling railroad hub. By the 1970s, that prosperity was a distant memory. Competition from a West Burlington shopping mall and changing demographics drained the life out of Burlington's once-thriving downtown. Historic building facades were covered with aluminum siding as storefront vacancy rates climbed to 80 percent. The ultimate insult came in 1980 when the once-proud Burlington Hotel (reduced to the "H tel Burlingto" as letters dropped from its sign) closed its doors.
Drawing from the strength of his construction business and his natural take-charge approach, Brueck embarked on a campaign to reverse Burlington's fortune. He did whatever was needed to realize his downtown's economic potential: toured vacant properties, talked with stakeholders, worked up renderings, met with bankers, donated materials, and provided design assistance. Working with civic groups such as Downtown Partners (the administrator of Burlington Main Street's program, one of the state's oldest), helped generate fresh ideas, new energy, and public and private investment. In doing so, Brueck helped usher in a new era for the city, one marked by the rehabilitation of the vacant commercial properties and boarded up warehouses that long defined its downtown.
Brueck started with the crumbling Port of Burlington building. Once the focal point of Burlington's historic railroad and shipping industry, the forgotten warehouse was surrounded by a gravel road and empty lots. Fifteen years of debate over the building's future had led nowhere until Brueck organized a group of local interests to develop a viable rehabilitation plan. With a price tag of under $400,000 (most of which was donated), the port was transformed into the Iowa Welcome Center at very little cost to taxpayers. The city even transferred the funds it had set aside for the building's demolition to further support its new future. The development now hosts popular community events such as a farmer's market, the Kiwanis benefit breakfast, and Steamboat Days. The project was also the catalyst for a large riverfront revitalization project, which has been a key milestone in restoring the appearance and perception of downtown Burlington.
Brueck's next achievement was converting the pitiful Hotel Burlington into a productive residential and commercial complex. The day the papers were signed on the hotel's redevelopment, Brueck acquired the former Schramm's department store, which had anchored downtown Burlington for 125 years until it closed in 1996. Considered by many to be a hopeless "white elephant," the four-story building sat vacant until Brueck stepped in with a mixed-use plan for the structure and a $2 million investment in hand. Now Schramm's houses commercial tenants on the first floor and upper floor condos and apartments with grand views of the river.
Now, luxury lofts in a small city like Burlington might seem as out of place as corn stalks in Manhattan, but the Schramm's Corner residences reflect a trend that offers great potential for places like Burlington: upscale downtown living. Believing that revival required residents to build the market, Brueck challenged other property owners to turn their vacant upper stories into living spaces. He set a powerful example, and all of the new residences are currently occupied. Best of all, Brueck no longer feels like he'll be laughed at when he talks about the importance of downtown living to Burlington's future. Instead there is growing consensus among city leaders that upper-floor housing in Burlington's commercial properties is key to expanding the city's tax base and to stabilizing its tax revenue stream, even in difficult economic times when commercial occupancy rates may falter.
Not content to stop there, Brueck set his sights on The Drake, a vacant riverfront warehouse. He helped convinced 35 investors – including many Main Street volunteers – to purchase the three-story brick building and to develop it into an upscale eatery and courtyard for riverfront dining and live music. Thanks to their combined investment of over $800,000, The Drake now offers a unique dining experience on the Mississippi River, as well as a striking gateway to downtown Burlington.
The results in Burlington are exemplary. Brueck's efforts helped his city earn a Great American Main Street Award in 2004 from the National Trust Main Street Center, and in 2005, the Center made him the first Iowan to receive its Business Leader Award. He has since been similarly recognized by Burlington city officials and the governor of Iowa.
Brueck would be the first to tell you that the appeal of these projects goes beyond aesthetics. Downtown revitalization makes sound business sense. Since 1986, when Burlington adopted the Main Street Four Point Approach to commercial district revitalization, its downtown has experienced a net gain of 189 businesses, 331 jobs, 376 completed building rehab/renovation projects, $22 million in private reinvestment and more than $8 million invested in property acquisition. Take Scramm's, for example. It is estimated that future taxes generated from this building are in excess of three times the amount ever generated in its 100 years as a department store. Additionally, dozens of construction workers have been employed through its rehabilitation.
Essential to Burlington's continued rise – and that of thousands of traditional downtowns across the country – is strong and diversified funding to support the rehabilitation of historic properties. As Brueck's projects illustrate, the creation of upper-floor housing in downtown areas is especially important to economic development. The Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit andthe Low Income Housing Tax Credit are financial tools that should be used together to facilitate the creation of housing in America's historic downtowns.
These financial tools would surely help keep those like Bob Brueck busy -– not that he seems to need much help in that department. Like most visionaries, his eyes are always trained on the horizon, anticipating how his Great American Main Street can become even better.