Lessons from a fellow river town

Where will we be, as a community, 20 years from now? 

Burlington is the largest river town between the Quad Cities and Quincy. So how is it that our population peaked in the 1970’s and has been on a steady decline since? 

This is on my mind because I just returned from a five-day trip to Dubuque, a fellow river town a shy three hours north. Originally there for a conference, I stuck around for a couple days after to further explore the place with the family. 

We visited the bustling riverfront, the iconic river museum, nature centers (they have two of them!), hiked some trails, and camped at a county park. It’s a cool place, for sure. I can see why it’s somewhat the envy of Iowa river towns. 

But it wasn’t always that way. Locals I spoke to recalled a time when the sentiment was, “Will the last person to leave Dubuque please shut the lights off?” I heard statements like, “I remember when you could shoot a cannon down main street on a Friday night and not worry about hitting anyone.” Though I don’t think they actually tested that theory. 

I heard, “Back then, downtown was not a place you wanted to go after dark.” But that was followed by, “Now, the place is hopping every night of the week. You can’t find a place to park. There’s people everywhere!” And that’s been the trend for a while. Dubuque County has grown in population annually for about thirty years. It grew more than seven percent in the last census period. 

What changed? And what lessons can we steal from their experience? Because there are a lot of similarities between them and us. Burlington and Dubuque were formed the same year (1833). And though they make the tenuous claim of being “Iowa’s First City,” and “#Where Iowa Started,” we hold the distinction of being the first territorial capital, the birthplace of Aldo Leopold, and more.

Burlington, as Wikipedia shows it. 

Dubuque, from its Wikipedia page.

We’re both historic river towns, as our downtown buildings make obvious. Dubuque has bigger bluffs and hills, which lends some uniqueness to their landscape thanks to having been missed by the last round of receding glaciers. But that just means our east-west streets are more walkable, right?

But from what I gather – and this is just my take from what few conversations I’ve had with locals up there along with a bit on online sleuthing – Dubuque has done two things better than we have. First, they embraced the river and anchored their identity to it. The place is known for its riverfront, which was flood-proofed after the 1965 flood (which was their biggest flood ever, we’ve since had nine bigger flood events here in Burlington) and its river museum, plans for which date back to the 1970’s. People there refer to having the Mississippi in their “front yard” and it being the “front door” to incoming visitors. 

But like so many other flood-prone river towns, we kind of have a love-hate relationship with the river. We’ve been inundated too many times. But we have our floodwall now. And we’re doing a lot more on the riverfront, which I appreciate. But once that work is done, what’s next?

Which brings me to the second thing Dubuque has done well: set and follow a long-term vision. 

In the 1990’s, public and private leadership came together and decided their worst days had to be behind them. It was time to look forward and set a vision for where they wanted to go. So they started at the ground level, with the citizens of the community. They did public surveys, workshops, town halls. They went out of their way to get feedback and used that to guide policy, public funding, outside fundraising, and public-private partnerships. 

In the end, they envisioned a diversified economy, a welcoming, healthy, and inclusive community that celebrated their history, and was of course, anchored to the river. I don’t know for sure, but it looks like momentum began with the river museum getting some big donations, launching the fittingly titled “America’s River” campaign, and securing a big Vision Iowa grant, which led to more investment. A couple hundred million bucks, two-plus decades, and multiple citizen-led vision updates later, they became the Dubuque I saw last week. 

Point in case: Read Dubuque's Welcome page.

But it’s one thing to do a visioning process. It’s something else entirely to unrelentingly follow that vision and go all-in, no-holds-barred, full-frontal assault on achieving it. And it can’t just be one entity’s vision. It had to be the entire community’s. The city, the county, the chamber, the main street and economic development organizations, the historic society, the local business community…everyone had to buy in. It appears to me that they all did (at least they all certainly are now). And it got them far. 

To use a river pun, I think this in an area where our community is missing the boat. Sure, there are plans out there. I have a strategic plan for county parks, the cities have their strategic and capital improvement plans, there’s a regional bike and pedestrian plan… But there’s no single, citizen-led, unifying, well-communicated vision that answers the question I posed at the start of this column. 

Where will we be in 20 years? 

We can wait and hope and see. Or we can collectively envision what we want it to be then work unrelentingly – and together – to create it.

This article first appeared in my monthly Living Land column in The Hawk Eye

Photo Credits:

Burlington photo: By Loco Steve (original), Yassie (derivative work) - cropped from File:BurlingtonIA
 Skyline.jpg, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42529892

Dubuque photo: By Dirk - originally posted to Flickr as Dubuque Iowa, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7121481