Austin learns from city’s success story

Published 8:31 am Thursday, February 17, 2011

If Austin was looking for a success story to spur the city’s vision for growth, it found it Wednesday with leaders from Dubuque, Iowa.

City officials of Dubuque spoke to Austinites Wednesday during the city’s Vision 20/20 Austin meeting, a gathering focussed on making Austin a more desirable location to live and work within the next decade.

The story behind the Iowa city’s growth may have seemed more like a fairy tale than reality to Austin residents, but if there’s one thing folks from Dubuque expressed, it was that Austin could do it, too.

Dubuque, named the best small city to raise a family by Forbes Magazine, wasn’t always known as the place to be. In 1993, the city saw the highest unemployment rate in the country at 23 percent.

“Ten years ago, you could have shot a cannon in our downtown and not hit a thing,” said Great Dubuque Development Corporation Director Rick Dickinson.

Since that time, the city, population 57,000, has been ranked No. 7 in the country for job growth by and was included in the nation’s list of top 100 communities for young people.

So what did the city do to turn things around?

That’s what Austin leaders wanted to know.

Over the past decade, the city has focussed on three key components of growth: pairing private and public sectors to carry out goals, including the community at every step of the way and utilizing the city’s natural resource in the Mississippi River.

Pairing private and public sectors is nothing new for Austin, with organizations such as the Hormel Foundation pouring in thousands to the city and community projects each year. But Dubuque leaders said that when they launched the official campaign with 10 specific project goals, even more money came flooding in.

While some communities have a tough time of engaging citizens of all walks of life, Nancy Van Milligen, Community Foundation CEO, said they knew that without the community support, the vision would go nowhere. She said the key was to make community involvement fun for those in the community and to spend a little bit of money on marketing tools and gimmicks to generate the attention needed.

In the end, efforts to reach out to the community worked. At its first planning meeting, there were nearly double the people who responded to invitations, and everyone from all walks of life showed up to party and contribute to their community’s vision for growth.

While Austin may not have the Mississippi River running through it, Dickinson said what’s most important is for any city to pinpoint its most valuable natural resource and play it up.

Mayor Tom Stiehm said Austin has plenty to be proud of, including the Hormel Institute, Hormel Corporation, the budding wind turbine industry and the college’s connection to the green practice. And with one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, he said the city is in a good position to move forward.

Development Corporation of Austin CEO John Garry said Wednesday’s meeting was a means of raising awareness among community leaders that a long-term community vision is needed. Garry said Vision 20/20 Austin will officially kick off this spring, and will largely follow the same planning process those in Dubuque carried out.