A recession followed by a farm crisis knocked the wind out of Dubuque, Iowa’s thriving economy in the mid-1980s. As family farms across the nation went belly up, so did Dubuque’s meat-packing and farm-implement manufacturing businesses.
Nonetheless, in the eyes of at least one man, Dubuque’s luck was about to change. Bill Woodward, part-owner of the local newspaper, looked beyond the boarded-up facades and saw picturesque limestone bluffs, a rich history and a river: America’s River.
Woodward’s dream was to build an interpretive education center on the banks of the Mississippi River — a place where children and adults could learn about the national treasure that lay in Dubuque’s front yard. When he died, Woodward bequeathed $1.7 million to the project, thus launching a revitalization effort that would produce a world-class tourism, shopping and business destination, complete with a river museum and aquarium, a 194-room hotel and water park, a half-mile-long riverfront promenade and a conference-and-events center.
“From [Woodward’s contribution], we just began to rally support,” says Terry Duggan, Dubuque’s mayor. During the next decade, Dubuque’s residents would donate $5 million to the effort, and a $40 million grant from the Vision Iowa program would open the door to limitless possibilities. Dubuque began to think big — $188 million big, to be exact.
America’s River, as the development project is called, never could have happened without the creative thinking of the city’s leaders, Duggan says. The city and the Dubuque Area Chamber of Commerce — which wanted to build a river walk, an amphitheater, a riverboat landing and other amenities — joined forces with the Dubuque County Historical Society, which was studying ways to expand the existing Mississippi River Museum and construct a river aquarium. Together, they were able to mount the largest fund-raising campaign in the area’s history.
The partnership received an unexpected boost when the state created the Vision Iowa program to fund projects that would “change the way a community looks at itself and attract young people who left Iowa during tough times,” Duggan explains. “Our project epitomizes that vision, and that’s why we received [Vision Iowa’s] first grant.”
To provide the matching funds that the Vision Iowa grant required, the America’s River project added a local private developer, Platinum Hospitality, which proposed a $25 million hotel and indoor water park. That idea prompted the others to suggest a conference-and-event facility next to the hotel.
Then, the Dubuque County Board of Supervisors joined the partnership, contributing $1 million. The project’s remaining funds came from the city’s general-obligation bonds; gaming revenues; the Dubuque Metropolitan Area Transportation Study; and federal grants from the Department of Transportation, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Park Service, and the U.S. Fisheries and Wildlife Service.
Last month, Dubuque’s Grand River Conference and Events Center opened and booked 40 events during the first three weeks, Duggan says. The expanded museum and aquarium opened in June and drew 250,000 visitors during its first four months, dwarfing an original estimate of 180,000 visitors per year. When the entire campus is up and running, it will generate more than 600 jobs, the mayor says.
According to Duggan, America’s River has taken on a life of its own. “The credit belongs to everyone who believed in Dubuque’s potential.”
Agencies/companies involved: City of Dubuque; Dubuque Area Chamber of Commerce; Dubuque County Board of Supervisors; Dubuque County Historical Society; Dubuque Metropolitan Area Transportation Study; Dubuque Racing Association; State of Iowa Vision Iowa Fund, Des Moines, Iowa; Institute of Museum and Library Services, Washington, D.C.; National Endowment for the Humanities, Washington, D.C.; National Park Service, Washington, D.C.; Platinum Hospitality, Dubuque, Iowa; U.S. Department of Transportation, Washington, D.C.; U.S. Fisheries and Wildlife Service, Washington, D.C.