The Dubuque Recipe to Rebuilding a City

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In 1985, Dubuque decided it wasn’t going to die.

Many of our nation’s cities, towns and villages face unique challenges to build, maintain or rekindle the love between the community and its members. Dubuque is one of the oldest cities on the Mississippi River and the oldest community in Iowa. Now a sparkling city on the rise in the American Midwest, Dubuque has had to work its way back even, slowly, over the past few decades. In 1983, our city had the highest unemployment in the country and had lost nearly 10% of its population. But just as Dubuque’s challenges reached their height in the 1980s, something else was born – a firm commitment to community engagement.

There was no magic wand – our revitalization was the hard work of community building. Along with my colleagues and community members, Dubuque went about trying to find the means, will and best practices to restore our downtown, neighborhoods and riverfront. Our city’s survival was in our hands.

Residents understood that the threats Dubuque was facing to population and prosperity were serious, and we vowed to come together and drive forward innovative and inclusive solutions. Volunteerism rose, attendance at community meetings increased and city leaders worked with residents to make Dubuque a place people wanted to live in again.

Beginning with Dubuque’s Vision 2000, initiated in 1990, our city has developed a tradition of local planning excellence and an effort to integrate past planning efforts into a consistent vision for the future. This renewed spirit and strategy have manifested as  Imagine Dubuque 2037: A Call to Action, the comprehensive plan for our community’s physical, social and economic development.

Our recipe for success is based on people, planning and partnership – that’s our secret sauce. We engaged our citizens as partners. Some point to Dubuque’s brownfields redevelopment as an important turning point, which helped funnel a $600 million investment into Dubuque’s riverfront redevelopment. Cities address brownfields in order to clean up environmental hazards, create jobs and investment opportunities and increase property values – and that’s exactly the effect it had on Dubuque.We have successfully reclaimed our downtown.Since the dark days of the 1980s, Dubuque jobs have grown from 37,300 to nearly 62,000, as cleaning up industrial sites and restoring unused land helped Dubuque modernize and expand.

Partnership has come in many forms for Dubuque. A small city with a small-town feel, Dubuque’s many local leaders have looked to leverage partnerships with non-profit organizations like the National League of Cities, private sector companies, the Iowa state government and federal partners on Capitol Hill and in the administration. We committed early in our redevelopment to envision a future for all of Dubuque. Few struggling cities reach an equitable, safe and secure future alone.

And now, we don’t just want to survive. Dubuque wants to thrive.

A city with an engaging, dynamic legacy and a complete community mobilization effort to get there – it’s safe to say, Dubuque is thriving. And we’re not going to stop here. With eyes on 2037, Dubuque will never forget 1985 – and our legacy is better for it.

TeriGoodmann_1About the author: Teri Hawks Goodmann serves the City of Dubuque as Assistant City Manager. Teri is completing her thirteenth year in this role. Her work creates and advances strategic partnerships for the City of Dubuque with private sector leaders and non-profit organizations, as well as county, state and federal government agencies and elected officials.