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Dubuque Revitilizes Local Economy By Rebuilding Riverfront

By Chris Kilgore
August 1, 2011

Dubuque saw its economy nearly collapse in the 1980s. With a local economy dependent on a few manufacturing industries, when the businesses collapsed, so did the city’s riverfront. The industries left behind a number of environmental issues and abandoned properties. The environmental and economic concerns left the city’s best asset, the riverfront to the Mississippi River, underutilized.

Seeing the disconnect between the city and the beautiful river beside it, the citizens and public officials of Dubuque created the America’s River project to transform the abandoned riverfront. The 90-acre area was ideal for a brownfield project, allowing the city to clean up the environmental mess that manufacturing industries had left, while building a new destination for residents and tourists to celebrate the allure of the Mississippi River.

The city used the expertise of numerous members of the community, public and private sector alike. To begin the planning process, the city council established a ten-member committee, including representatives from the city, the local chamber of commerce, the local historical society, and a private developer. The committee’s work was aided by an impressive team of consultants, including economists, planners, and urban designers. The city also put together a developers- workshop, where almost 60 private developers were brought together to review the plans.

The America’s River project turned into a nearly $400 million effort, and the city turned to a number of sources for funding. The city itself allotted more than $100 million, fulfilling 35 percent of the costs. The city received federal funding, including $400,000 from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Brownfields Pilot and Clean Up grant program, as well as grants from the U.S. Economic Development Administration and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development totaling about $2.35 million to cover the property acquisition costs. The city received more than $55 million of state funds for redevelopment, and the county provided $1.7 million to the project.

Nevertheless, the project would not have been so successful without substantial private funding, totaling more than $15 million. The Dubuque Area Chamber of Commerce also provided substantial help in public awareness and tourism development.

This public-private partnership was unprecedented in its scope, including 13 federal agencies, the state of Iowa and many of its agencies and departments, five Governors along the Upper Mississippi River, a number of national navigation associations, and 35 national environmental groups. Each contributing member provided expertise or funding to the immense project. The project was a model of a successful public-private partnership in which both sectors of the economy worked to redevelop the allure and image of a local community.

Before the city could build the state-of-the-art tourist destination, it had to deal with the substantial environmental problems of the area. Numerous soil samples showed arsenic concentrations at levels that exceeded statewide standards. Lead and polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbon impacts were found in several areas, likely the result of the petroleum storage facility that operated for 50-years on the Dubuque riverfront. Inorganic metal and volatile organic compounds were found in the groundwater in several locations.

Environmental assessment and clean up began in May 2003. The process was split into two phases, the second of which used EPA Brownfield funding. The petroleum cleanup used an innovative method that utilized vacuum extraction of free product and hydrogen peroxide to address the pollutants dissolved in groundwater. The cleanup of the residual petroleum impact was completed in 2007.

The America’s River project is an example of a city taking on two major issues simultaneously. Dubuque redeveloped the riverfront, not just for economic or environmental reasons, but for both. Real estate development normally focuses on profitability, while brownfield projects focus primarily on environmental issues. The America’s River project brought together experts from both fields creating a way to reconnect with the Mississippi River and attract tourists.

The America’s River project also demonstrated the economic benefits of improving a city’s image. Before the project, the Dubuque riverfront was not very alluring for tourists. Now, the riverfront is one of the most popular tourist attractions in state, bringing in lots of outside business and spending. The revitalized Dubuque riverfront benefitted not only its own residents but also all those who now visit it.

The abandoned, environmentally-hazardous riverfront area has been transformed into the beautiful, tourist-friendly Port of Dubuque. The America’s River project not only solved the numerous environmental issues the area faced, but created a place where people could celebrate the incredible asset of the local environment.

The city’s bane became its blessing.

For more information on the America’s River project, contact Aaron DeJong, Assistant Economic Development Director, at or (563)589-4393.