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Former Factory Town in Iowa Eyes Green Future, Improved Livability

June 17, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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As part of our Blueprint America series of reports on American infrastructure needs, special correspondent Miles O'Brien reports on the city of Dubuque, Iowa, and the steps they've taken toward a green future.
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JIM LEHRER: Next: another of our Blueprint America reports on infrastructure. Tonight: A factory town bets on a green future. Our story was produced with WNET New York. The reporter is special corresponden Miles O’Brien.

MAN: Good Saturday morning, Michael Kay (ph) here at Farmer’s Market, Iowa’s oldest open-air farmers market, 165 years.

MILES O’BRIEN: Dubuque is one of the oldest cities in Iowa, home to 60,000 people.

MAN: We’re chatting with the mayor of Dubuque, Roy Buol.

Hi, Mr. Mayor.

ROY BUOL, mayor of Dubuque, Iowa: Good morning, Michael.

MAN: Good to see you again.

ROY BUOL: Great to be here on a beautiful day.

MILES O’BRIEN: The people in this old factory town along the Mississippi have signed on to a unique experiment. They’re attempting to turn Dubuque into one of the nation’s most sustainable cities. The man leading the charge is Mayor Roy Buol.

ROY BUOL: Good morning, Rachel.

MILES O’BRIEN: He spent decades working at the factory floor at the town’s largest employer, John Deere. Five years ago, he ran for mayor on a green platform and won.

How does a guy, a guy who works with his hands at John Deere all those years, become a mayor so interested in the other kind of green, green issues?

ROY BUOL: Well, I can tell you, it all really started for me when my wife and I started being blessed with grandchildren. I just started thinking, you know, what kind of a world are we going to be leaving for future generations, with our consumption patterns and how — how wasteful we were in our energy usage?

MILES O’BRIEN: Dubuque could have turned out to be a classic Rust Belt story. But, for the past two decades, the city has been working to avoid that fate. Take a quick look: a revitalized river front, a new Convention Center, and a museum. Far beyond the banks of the Mississippi, people are noticing.

The U.S. Council of Mayors called Dubuque the most livable small city in America. “Forbes” magazine proclaimed it number-one small city for projected job growth. Even the federal government is calling Dubuque a model for 21st century economic development.

Dubuque, Iowa, the quintessential city of the future? Apparently so. So, what is it that makes this place a model for sustainability? Buol believes the model starts with community input. Shortly after taking office, he formed a citizen task force to draw up a blueprint for sustainability.

ROY BUOL: And they brought that back to the city council for our approval, and I think they hit a home run. Today, that plan is looked at by other communities as kind of a benchmark.

MILES O’BRIEN: It’s great to have benchmarks, but you also need the bucks. Dubuque has been effective at combining the two.

ROY BUOL: Citizens of Dubuque do hereby proclaim the week of May 8 through the 15, 2010, as AmeriCorps Week in the city of Dubuque, Iowa.

MILES O’BRIEN: When we were here, we witnessed one small example. The city council recognized these young AmeriCorps volunteers here for a door-to-door campaign to install energy-saving devices, courtesy of the Environmental Protection Agency.

CANDACE EUDALEY, resident of Dubuque, Iowa: I want to make my house efficient.

MILES O’BRIEN: Candace Eudaley is a 25-year-old who was born and raised in Dubuque. This gadget will cut her water usage by 40 percent.

CANDACE EUDALEY: I don’t even think I would know what aerator to buy at the store. So, having them come in with something that can fit — it was like a universal aerator — was really awesome.

MILES O’BRIEN: Eudaley believes Dubuque is moving in the right direction.

WOMAN
: Do you have plants outside?

CANDACE EUDALEY: Yes.

WOMAN: OK.

CANDACE EUDALEY: No city is perfect. I have been to a lot of interesting ones, but no one’s doing everything. And Dubuque isn’t doing everything yet, but it’s planning to seriously do everything, and I think do it
pretty well.

MILES O’BRIEN: In order to convince younger citizens to stick around, the mayor says Dubuque needs a vibrant, livable downtown.

ROY BUOL: The vision is to turn this area into what we call work force housing. For those young professionals that a lot are coming to town today, we want to redevelop this into housing that they would like to live in at a price that they can afford, and create complete streets to replace what we have here. These streets are 100 years old-plus.

MILES O’BRIEN: Complete streets. This is where the rubber meets the road for rebirth here. The streets, sidewalks, bike lanes, and even public transit are all on their way, now that Dubuque has landed a $5.6 million chunk of last year’s federal economic stimulus package.

Buried in that bill is a tiny pilot program for infrastructure projects just like this. It’s meant to promote the Obama administration’s vision for smart growth. Last fall, three members of the Obama Cabinet came to Dubuque to promote their livability agenda.

RAY LAHOOD, U.S. secretary of transportation: This is an opportunity for you to say to your kids you can now come back to Dubuque, because there are some opportunities here.

MILES O’BRIEN: Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was flanked by his counterparts at the Environmental Protection Agency and Housing and Urban Development, the so-called green Cabinet.

RAY LAHOOD: The definition of livable communities, people ask us all the time, what does it mean? It’s a community where you can live, you can go to the grocery store, the drugstore, the doctor’s office, you can get all over – all around that neighborhood and around the city without ever having an automobile.

MILES O’BRIEN: That last point is really important. It represents a big policy shift in Washington where, for decades, transportation funding was inextricably linked to building new highways, which created the suburbs and sprawl.

To get people back downtown, Mayor Buol recently cut a deal.

ROY BUOL: The addition of 1,300 people in our downtown work force will most certainly accelerate the realization of our vision for a revitalized warehouse district.

MILES O’BRIEN: The city of John Deere’s big green machines is now also home to Big Blue. IBM recently moved in to this newly refurbished energy-efficient landmark building. Turns out IBM came here in part because Dubuque’s philosophy synchs up nicely with one of the corporation’s new ventures.

ANNOUNCER: On a smarter planet, we can analyze all the data we now see.

MILES O’BRIEN: IBM intends to develop and sell technology to help cities run more efficiently.

V.P. Robert Morris says Dubuque is the perfect place to beta test these new product ideas.

ROBERT MORRIS, vice president of services research, IBM: So it became a double attraction to us, just not the attraction of doing an I.T. delivery center, but also the attraction of saying, hey, this could be America’s most advanced or most integrated or most innovative smarter city.

MILES O’BRIEN: So, the one-time factory town in the Midwest becomes this is incubator, this laboratory for the city of the future. It’s an ironic twist, and it leaves a lot of people a little bit uneasy. What happens if this partnership goes south?

BILL HAMMEL, former Dubuque city council member: When IBM was making this great announcement for Dubuque, they were also laying off 5,000 people in the United States, and those jobs went overseas. So, when IBM gets this is thing up and running, are — are those jobs going to get pulled out and sent overseas? And, if they are, that’s going to be a hell of a void to fill in Dubuque.

MILES O’BRIEN: Bill Hammel is a retired firefighter and former city councilman. He’s worried that a $50 million incentive package may be too high a price to bring IBM to town.

BILL HAMMEL: If IBM were going to stay here, it would be great. But it seems like it cost an awful lot of money. They’re not hiring that many Dubuquers.

MILES O’BRIEN: Why did IBM get such a special deal, and was it worth it?

ROY BUOL: You know, I think it was what we had to do to compete with other communities that were trying to lure IBM. At the end of this year, we’re going to have 1,300 IBM employees in the city, with an annual total payroll of about $60 million, turning over in our community, you know, the restaurants downtown, the housing, that kind of money, every year in the city of Dubuque.

MILES O’BRIEN: I’m sure it would be accurate to say you wouldn’t be here were it not for those incentives, right?

ROBERT MORRIS: The incentives certainly help, but just as important as the incentives were the approach that the town took towards strengthening and making the city more sustainable. It wouldn’t help us if we brought jobs here and then, several years later, found that our people didn’t want to live here.

MILES O’BRIEN: Bill Hammel remains skeptical.

BILL HAMMEL: As far as livability, you look around Dubuque, it’s clean, fairly friendly people. So, to me, that’s what makes Dubuque livable. But this sustainable stuff, livable, that — those are buzzwords. They — they don’t mean anything.

MILES O’BRIEN: But, for many in town, those same words have meaning.

CANDACE EUDALEY: I did not think I was going to be here when I was 25. I definitely didn’t think, oh, yes, when I — like, when I was in high school, this wasn’t where I was going to be. But I think it’s getting to be a place where I want to be. So, I may be here for quite a while.

MILES O’BRIEN: The verdict is still out on Dubuque’s sustainability initiatives. But one thing is for sure.

Sustainability is good politics for you, isn’t it?

ROY BUOL: Sustainability is excellent politics. I think it’s excellent politics for anyone living in a community where you have involved citizens and given them the information they need to make that decision.

MILES O’BRIEN: Back in Washington, the green Cabinet will soon hand out another $600 million worth of grants to cities working on livability programs like Dubuque’s.