“The care of rivers is not a question of rivers, but of the human heart.”
— Tanaka Shozo

Arriving in Dubuque, Iowa, is a bit disorienting. After passing acres and acres of the heartland’s flat soybean and cornfields, you suddenly come upon a small city (pop. 60,000) with a surprising landscape. Gazing east to west, you see the muddy Mississippi meandering south toward New Orleans, a historic Main Street lined with 150-year-old brick buildings, and a wall of limestone bluffs covered in trees displaying the season’s majestic colors. It’s an idyllic setting for sure — but you begin to wonder if you should be tapping your heels together, because it certainly doesn’t feel like Iowa anymore.

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Photos: Sarah van Schagen and Katharine Wroth

But it is decidedly Iowa — in fact, this spunky liberal city is the state’s oldest. Founded by a lead miner in the late 1700s*, Dubuque was a bustling center of activity during the Western Expansion. Like many towns on the Mississippi River, it was a waystation for settlers heading West and was especially known for its high-quality covered wagons.

But as industrialization continued, Dubuque began to turn its back on the river. In order to maintain a deep enough channel for barge traffic, the federal government built a series of locks and dams along the upper Mississippi, forever changing the waterway’s flow. (Lock and Dam Number 11 is on the north side of Dubuque; Numbers 10 and 12 are about 30 miles away in either direction.) Flood walls were built to protect the city’s assets from natural flooding cycles, but they also kept people from getting near the water’s edge, from being constantly reminded of this powerful waterway, a valuable — and beautiful — resource right in their back yard.

By the 1980s, much of the land along the river was brownfield or industrial. Perhaps mirroring the decaying waterfront, the city itself was facing a low point at that time as well. With the highest unemployment rate in the nation, Dubuque was losing jobs by the thousands, losing its population, and almost losing hope. Until Dubuque citizens realized the value of the untapped asset flowing right through town.

America’s River

Today, a day trip on a small pleasure-craft with a friendly Dubuque native reveals a revitalized riverfront — and makes quite clear just how far the city has come in the past few decades, and how much promise the area yet holds. On land that was once brownfield, you’ll now find a brand-new, glass-walled conference center overlooking the river with an adjoining resort and indoor water park, a steamboat-housed casino, and the state-of-the-art National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium. You might even see people strolling along the red-brick riverwalk or descending the stairs of the riverfront plaza that leads right into the Mississippi, allowing anyone with a curious streak to dip a finger into the muddy waters.

“We wanted citizens to have a place where they could go and recreate,” said Dubuque mayor Roy D. Buol, “and we wanted to attract tourists to what we see as a national treasure — the Mississippi River.”

Just north of this riverfront gem, a coal plant (much reviled by the Dubuquers we spoke to) and other signs of industry are still visible, making clear that this is still a mixed-use waterfront.

All this new development that has seemingly sprung up like seedlings after a long rain is part of the city’s $188 million redevelopment project, dubbed “America’s River.” But Dubuque is far from finished with what they call their “Masterpiece on the Mississippi.” The ambitious phase two is a $225 million effort to turn more brownfield into multi-use retail/office/residential buildings and further expand the museum, among other projects.

How exactly did this Iowa town turn a forgotten river hidden behind a floodwall into a focal point for the city’s now-booming economy? Teamwork. “It’s our best kept secret,” Buol said. All of the city planners and officials work together and in tandem with the county, the state, and the federal government — a concept that, in theory, works everywhere, but in practice, is quite rare. Here in Dubuque, though, it’s an ideal we heard praised repeatedly and saw in action as we spoke to city planners, builders, and political folk.

Dubuque’s success has even become an inspiration for other river cities hoping to revamp their waterfronts, and the city has been recognized by the American Institute of Architects as one of seven in the nation to receive technical assistance from the 2007 Sustainable Design Assessment Team. Creating a sustainable green community in Dubuque is one of Buol’s top five priorities, he said, inspired in part by his participation in the Sundance Summit and the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement.

But he’s not alone. “The community is very supportive of what’s happening and how it’s happening,” said City Manager Mike Van Milligen during a recent SDAT conference in Dubuque. “I think they’re appreciative of the fact that they’ve been participants in developing the plans. They’ve seen what bad is, and they don’t want to see it again. They’ve seen what good is, and they really like it.”

A Flood of Funding

Of course, there’s no such thing as free lunch, and Dubuque’s buffet of riverfront projects is certainly no exception. While the city has funded half of the riverfront planning effort, the other half has benefited from funds raised by the planning commission. A large chunk of those funds — $40 million — came from Vision Iowa, a project of the Iowa Department of Economic Development to provide funding assistance to major tourism attractions in the state. Private money has gone into new construction like the casino, hotel, and mixed-use buildings, as well as the conversion of an old brewery into a winery and restaurant offering breathtaking river views.

About a third of the $188 million invested in phase one of the America’s River project has gone toward renovating the National Mississippi Museum & Aquarium. In addition to enlarging the facility, which used to live in an old freight house, the project has re-envisioned the museum’s whole raison d’etre to address the river’s environmental history and provoke questions about the future of the river and the consequences of human choice.

Teri Goodmann of the National Mississippi River Museum &
Aquarium discusses the river’s evolution.

The museum’s massive catfish tanks, floor-to-ceiling aerial maps, and interactive displays on floodwalls and dredge projects have helped serve as “an impetus for people to begin to think about living in a more sustainable fashion,” said Teri Goodmann, the museum’s director of national advancement. This new environmental focus has also highlighted the role of Dubuque citizens as “stewards of the greatest river on earth,” she said. And the museum is now at work on collaboration efforts with other cities to “help promote sustainable practices in order to act as guardians of the river.”

Knowing that river cities and towns are the “front lines” in protecting the Mississippi’s health, Goodmann and her museum staff have begun to collaborate with other facilities along the river — some 67 museums and interpretation centers — as well as 35 national environmental groups like The Nature Conservancy, Audubon, and Trust for Public Land in efforts to tell the story of the river. A network of community foundations convened by the Minnesota-based McKnight Foundation — a major funder of both the National Mississippi Museum & Aquarium and this Grist series — has also joined the collaborative effort.

“I think the community gets it,” said Dubuque architect Kevin Eipperle, a managing principal at Durrant and past Iowa president of the AIA. “They understand the importance of preserving their natural resources — the river, the bluffs, the air quality, the stock of the historic architecture, the historic buildings — whether they’re houses or warehouses or storefronts or the courthouse … and it drives the economy, really; it’s what makes us unique and interesting and fun.”

Breaking Down Walls

Part of what helped open Dubuque’s eyes to its riverfront was the (very literal) burial of the concrete floodwall that once separated the city from the river; it’s now been turned into an amenity — the riverwalk and river’s edge plaza — that does the very opposite, bringing people closer to the mighty Mississippi.

“[The river] is our most significant geographical feature,” said Laura Carstens, Dubuque’s planning services manager. “It defines our community’s edge and what the river did over time with the bluffs defines your sense of place in Dubuque.”

Efforts are under way to connect all of Dubuque’s riverfront with bike trails — from the Mines of Spain state park at the southern end of town up past a bike trail on an old railroad bed on the north end.

Dubuque native Trish McDonald explains why she chose to move
back to the Mississippi River city.

The trails would also pass through a tree-covered green space perched atop one of Dubuque’s highest bluffs. The 146-acre area is called Eagle Point Park because it offers a view of the Dubuque Lock and Dam where bald eagles flock in the winters as ice builds on the river; a few decades ago, though, said longtime resident Trish McDonald, eagles were a rare sight. The iconic birds, as representative of American heritage as the river itself, are now seen more frequently in the area.

And that’s not all Dubuque’s planners hope to bring back to the city. Van Milligen knows that young people are choosing their careers based on location more than anything else these days, and he wants to help build an environment that attracts that workforce, and in turn, the companies too. The McGraw-Hill publishing group is one of the first of what Dubuquers hope will be many companies to take advantage of the developing riverfront location, building an office facility and bringing with it jobs and young professionals.

“Dubuque has a real opportunity to become one of those incredible places to live,” Eipperle said. “[We’re] bringing things back to the downtown and the riverfront, restoring the riverfront so it is not only industrial but also recreational.”

And the loudest cheerleader of this small-city-that-could is the mayor himself. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Buol would be optimistic about his city’s future, but the grandfatherly character, who also doubles as chief groundskeeper for the University of Dubuque, is full of genuine Midwestern enthusiasm. “There’s real excitement in Dubuque,” he said. “I think as the story gets out, there’s gonna be a lot of people wanting to live in places like Dubuque, Iowa.” Then, cupping his hand to his face, he said in a faux whisper, “Tell our secret.”

Consider it told.

*[Correction, 20 Dec 2007: This article originally stated that Dubuque was founded in the late 1800s. In fact, it was founded in the late 1700s.]