SPECIAL REPORT: Key to Prosperity - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

SPECIAL REPORT: Key to Prosperity

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If you don't live in the city of Dubuque, you may know it as a beautiful river town, made for the occasional getaway.

The city says it gets millions of tourists each year.

However, in the last few decades, its seen dramatic change.

It's the oldest settlement west of the Mississippi and has become known as, the 'Masterpiece on the Mississippi' with a vibrant downtown, hotels and two casinos. But not too long ago, that wasn't the case.

"There was no there, there. There wasn't any reason to come down here," remembered Dan LoBianco, executive director of Dubuque Main Street, a non-profit organization focused on downtown redevelopment.

In the 80s, the city went through an economic downturn. Layoffs by the thousands occurred at the hands of two of its largest employers.

"In those early 80s to mid-80s, John Deere Dubuque Works, as well as, Dubuque Packing Company, both were going through really rough times,  and the whole country was going through a downed economy, but we led the nation for a few weeks in unemployment," LoBianco added.

Kevin Lynch, former city council member, and Dubuque native, watched it happen.

"It was a very nasty time. Our unemployment rate was over 25 percent and Dubuque was just not a real great place to live, cause no one could find a job and the economy was very depressed," he said.

Some left town for good, explained Dubuque Mayor Roy Buol. "We lost almost 10 percent of our population. Dubuque wasn't the community of choice back then."

People said there were even bumper stickers in town that read, "Last one to leave Dubuque, turn off the lights."

People knew something needed to be done to make the city better, and have it live up to its true potential.

The turning point was the opening of the Dubuque Greyhound Park in 1985, the money and jobs that came with it, and a deliberate effort by the city to become a tourist destination.

"The fact that the City of Dubuque got one of the first gaming licenses -- that was a big plus at that time, because we got a lot of revenues from the gaming industry throughout the years," Buol said.

Then, there was the riverfront, which was converted from early 90s eyesore, to tourist attraction.

Future plans now include revamping a section of the riverfront, underneath the Julian Dubuque Bridge known as the South Port. "There's hopefully potential for a little residential down there, things that already compliment the tourist attractions," LoBianco added.

Lynch said city leaders are also discussing upgrades to Schmitt Island, which is where the Q Casino and the Mystique Community Ice Center are located. "A destination hotspot, there is that potential."

The Millwork District also continues to see changes. A new hotel is under construction there -- Towneplace Suites by Marriott. It's scheduled to open later in the spring. 

In addition, there are talks to revitalize the Central Avenue Corridor, downtown near the north-end. "We're not done, we're looking north of 14th Street along that Central and White corridor," LoBianco said.

Another big change for Dubuque's future is the Southwest Arterial Project. The four lane, six mile highway, will cut traffic to certain parts of the city, connecting Highway 20 to Highway 151.

Some say it's badly needed, but some worry it might impact businesses.

"I think it may be an issue for certain types of businesses...gas stations, convenience stores," said Tracy Gloeckner, owner of Dirt Road Darlings boutique. "For my type of business, we're more product driven, we post our deliveries and everything on Facebook, so we're kind of a destination. They come for a particular item, I don't think that's gonna change."

The first phase of the nearly $200 million bypass project is set to be done in the summer of 2019. 

Dubuque's changes have been the combined efforts of the private and public sectors, with plenty of citizen engagement.

Since 2007, Dubuque has received nearly $550 million from state and federal grants to help with projects. The city has also directly benefited from the Vision Iowa Fund, a state program that provides money for communities to develop tourism. 

Looking ahead, there is plenty of development in store not just for Dubuque, but also for the county. When it comes to jobs, the Greater Dubuque Development Corporation said in the last 10 years, the city and county combined, has seen five percent job growth.

Their five year plan is to keep momentum going by growing the workforce from 60,000 to 64,000 countywide,  increasing household income, attracting more residential and commercial construction and growing the county's population to 100,000.

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