Rediscovering Dubuque and Northeast Iowa
January 13, 2017 | Rediscovering Dubuque and Northeast Iowa
A focus on current businesses and strategic growth combined with increased educational opportunities and strong, dedicated private and public partnerships has created a vibrant and diverse Dubuque-area economy. The area has done a complete turnaround from the days in the 1980s when it had one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation with more than 20 percent of people out of work.
At the helm of some of these efforts has been the nonprofit Greater Dubuque Development Corp., which helped centralize the region’s economic development efforts with its creation in 1984.
“Since that time, we’ve transformed from an organization that was dedicated to chasing smokestacks to community transformation through economic development,” said Rick Dickinson, the president and chief executive officer of Greater Dubuque Development Corp. “We’ve gone from solely recruiting business to expanding business, renewable energy development and entrepreneurial development, and improving the com- munity. Instead of just chasing companies, it’s focusing on the product that is Dubuque.”
Much of that improvement has taken place in the past decade. The Greater Dubuque Development Corp. board is composed of elected representatives from the local to state level, labor union representatives, the Dubuque manager and economic development employees, educational leaders, and the chief executives of private companies big and small. These individuals have joined to create five-year strategies for how to improve the northeast Iowa/Dubuque region.
Attention to Existing Businesses Vital to Area’s Success, Growth
A big factor in the economic growth and success has been the business expansion and retention program, Dickinson said. Each year, the development corporation meets in person with more than 340 businesses to discuss the challenges the companies may face and what opportunities they have for the future.
As a result, between 8 percent and 10 percent of Iowa’s job growth has taken place in the Dubuque area, and 85 percent of that growth has come from existing businesses. The community accounts for 3 percent of the state’s population. There are 61,400 people working in Dubuque County as of December 2016. That’s up from the economic slump in the mid-1980s when there were only 37,000 employed.
“Not only have we dramatically increased the number of opportunities in our market, but those opportunities are much more diverse,” Dickinson said. There’s been growth in the financial services, insurance, information technology, customer services and health care industries that has brought new jobs. Unemployment is down to between 3 percent and 4 percent.
Conlon Construction is one of those companies that stayed in Dubuque even during the tough times. It was founded in 1903 and has called the city home since 1922. The company’s longevity and its success are tied to its ability to create lasting business relationships with a variety of long-term clients and to be versatile and adaptable in its services.
“The secret for us is to be flexible and work in a management capacity to develop projects early in the process through design, all the way through construction,” company President Tim Conlon said.
The area is home to several century-old businesses that helped to serve as the backbone to keeping Dubuque alive.
“That really probably was the key to our success here,” Conlon said.
Conlon was one of the companies that receive work through a Vision Iowa grant that helped revitalize the riverfront with several projects that included the catalyst project, the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, along with a casino, a hotel and office buildings.
These projects were a combination of public and private partnerships that helped spark growth.
“It all cleaned up the riverfront, so tourism took off and became a major economic engine,” Conlon said.
The area’s strong leadership and partnerships between public government and the private sector have been crucial to the area receiving grants to mitigate flood issues and improve roadways. This, combined with a strong economic development group that is devoted to supporting and maintaining existing businesses, has led to continued growth and success in the region, Conlon said.
“I think success builds on itself, and I think people see that we in Dubuque have worked with the private and public sector to get great things done,” he said. “Our Dubuque economy is well balanced with higher-ed, manufacturing, health care, housing, retail, and we continue to grow all of those area. It’s good for the community, and with our type of business, our company, too.”
The area’s economic growth and success also have been important to companies such as Jackson Manufacturing in Maquoketa. The company does much of its business and recruits employees from within the Dubuque area, said Jack Hasken, the company’s president and chief executive officer.
Hasken took over ownership of the company in 2013 to save his job and prevent others from losing theirs when the company was on the verge of closing. He’s turned around the business and will report its best year for 2016.
Hasken, who has been a lifelong resident of the area and is an adult undergraduate at the University of Dubuque through its LIFE program, said much of the growth and improvements in the area needs to be credited to city leaders who began to create a vision for the region and market its potential as a tourist attraction with more performing arts entertainment, a water park, hotels, casinos, more restaurants and a nice parks system.
He said leaders began to see the community was too dependent upon a handful of key large employers and sought out ways to diversify the job market and bring more white-collar jobs.
“I like to think that our ‘conservative’ thinking, along with good decision-making by city leaders in the last 10 years, is the major reason we are doing so well,” Hasken said. “It all comes down to planning and execution.”
In addition to business retention and expansion, there has been an increased focus on nationally marketing the area, working with local colleges and universities to find solutions to workforce shortages, creating sustainable opportunities that include solar energy and a cleansing of methane gas for reuse, and supporting new startup ventures.
In 2017, Dickinson said, the public and private sectors will turn their attention to transforming Dubuque’s downtown by addressing areas of slum and blight, and entering the lowest-income U.S. Census tracts to make improvements such as working with families and educators in those areas to improve third-grade reading levels. Other improvements will come in the form of gateway development, streetscape improvements, the acquisition of flood-damaged or slum and blighted properties. Part of the plan is to give newly employed individuals the chance to acquire homes that have been reconverted back into single-family residences, he said.
Greatest Emphasis Placed on Creating Skilled Workforce
Dickinson said most of the development corporation’s resources go to- ward workforce solutions because it’s the greatest issue businesses in the Dubuque area face. They’ve worked with the Dubuque Telegraph-Herald to publicize employment opportunities through the website jobs.accessdubuque.com, and they conduct tours of the community for companies that are trying to recruit individuals to the area. They reach out to colleges and universities within 200 miles of Dubuque to inform students about career opportunities through college campus luncheons where the students are in direct contact with the chief executives of Dubuque companies.
Increasing the workforce is a three-pronged approach of recruiting individuals, retaining talent and creating talent. To create more workers, Opportunity Dubuque was formed. Through the program, unemployed or underemployed individuals receive training through community colleges. More than 500 individuals have graduated from the program, with a 94 percent placement rate in jobs that pay at least $14 an hour.
Conlon said the increased emphasis placed on creating skilled workers to fill jobs has helped many companies, including his. Workforce development remains an issue as businesses want to grow but find a lack of skilled workers.
“My industry is focusing a lot of energy into craft and skilled worker development,” he said. “Those areas where workers are in short supply these days.”
The number of skilled workers has increased through education and training programs at local colleges and higher educational institutions including Northeast Iowa Community College, which has been supportive in creating career certificate training programs that meet the needs of area businesses.
“That’s one of the reasons I think some of our companies are so successful,” Conlon said. “We have the training and the programs.”
Wendy Mihm-Herold, the vice president of business community solutions for Northeast Iowa Community College, said the growth of various employment sectors including manufacturing, IT, construction, transportation, retail and business professionals was a result of partnerships with a joint vision to improve economic development by ensuring diversity in employment opportunities.
“That’s one of the great things about the northeast Iowa region is that we see growth in multiple sectors, not just one sector,” she said. “That means we have a very diversified employment base.”
Mihm-Herold said NICC has been instrumental in helping with the work- force shortage by working with employers to create career pathway certificates that train individuals for the jobs that are available. This program has grown from one pathway in 2011 to more than 20 in 2016. The greatest growth has come in the areas of manufacturing and health programs, she said.
Public-Private Investment Required to Make Changes Happen
All of this hasn’t happened without a will and the leadership to do it, Dickinson said. The first year, they operated with a $180,000 budget. This year they have $2 million and 21⁄2 times the employees. Two-thirds of the money comes from the private sector.
“We work with existing businesses to let them know we’re here for them,” he said. “The capital investment in Greater Dubuque Development is significant. The private sector has bought in because they’ve seen the results and design what we do. They’re not just asked to pony up. They’re engaged in the economic development model we’ve created.”
For the next five years, that model will be based upon goals of continued job growth, an increase in median household income, population growth, and commercial and residential property growth measured by the number of building permits that are issued, Dickinson said.