Communities large and small are refreshing historic areas – but it takes money, time and a plan
Doors and window sashes are no longer made in Dubuque’s Historic Millwork District. Even so, symbols that it was once a hub of industrial activity are everywhere as private developers and the city turn the 17-square-block area into a place for restaurants, offices and apartments.
“It was a perfectly designed and planned project from an urban design standpoint as a live-work-play community, but it was done well over 100 years ago for factories. But it couldn’t have been more perfect if you designed it from scratch. It just needed vision and planning and people willing to take the risk,” said John Gronen, president of Gronen Properties Restoration, whose company has helped lead the revitalization of the district and its one million square feet of vacant, former factory space.
Throughout the district, old mixes with new. Rail tracks are embedded in the streets. Elevated skywalks previously used by mill workers now house grills and patio furniture for apartments. The last two industry players in the district left a few years ago, but signs still hang for one, Jeld-Wen Inc., on a former lumber storage building.
Some buildings have been restored, such as the large CARADCO complex — it stands for Carr Adams and Collier Co. — which Gronen’s company turned from a factory to a mix of small businesses and apartments. Others wait their turn, including the former lumber storage building, now eyed as a future corporate headquarters for an undisclosed company.
“We still have a lot of work to do. We tell people the planners said that, for our Millwork District, it’s a 15- to 20-year project. It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” Gronen said.
‘THE PROBLEM EXISTS EVERYWHERE’
The revitalization of the Millwork District, on the east side of downtown Dubuque, began at the start of the decade. It is representative of what Iowa towns have to face when confronting abandoned or vacant buildings.
The district used to be home to some of the largest window and door makers in the country. Many moved as factory work changed and corporate consolidations shifted operations out of the city.
“We either had to address and repurpose (those buildings) or they were a cancer in the heart of the community,” said Rick Dickinson, president and chief executive officer of Greater Dubuque Development Corp.
As Iowans have left smaller towns and manufacturers have shuttered factories in former industrial centers, cities and towns can be left with empty structures, seen as a blight that either needs to be demolished or revitalized.
“The problem exists everywhere. The places where it’s the most extreme is when you have the buildings that were once the iconic, prominent building on your Main Street that are sitting there vacant or, in many cases, partially vacant,” said Zachary Mannheimer, principal community planner with McClure Engineering Co. in Des Moines. (Note: Mannheimer will also give a keynote at our Iowa Ideas conference this fall.)
IT TAKES ‘THE WHOLE COMMUNITY’
Iowa towns that want to revitalize their vacant buildings will need a list of things to get it done, Gronen and others said. That includes:
- A thought-out plan and vision for the space backed by the community.
- Money and the ability to weave together layers of funding sources.
- Time, which could include years to establish the plan and follow it through.
- And, perhaps most important, buy-in from residents, local government and the private sector.
“The more partners you can bring to the table, the better it’s going to be,” said David Heiar, Dubuque’s former economic development director.
Vacant buildings should be transformed into multiuse structures with retail or office space on the ground floor and apartments above, Mannheimer said. Younger adults want modern apartments downtown, and businesses should be “touch services,” offering products customers can’t get online, such as food or art, he said.
“These are the things that work on Main Streets and, thankfully, also help make those communities unique. People will drive a good distance to go to a really good restaurant,” Mannheimer said.
He pointed to Stanton, a small western Iowa town of about 700. McClure Engineering worked with Stanton to develop a “place-making action plan,” which lays out redevelopment plans for a number of buildings, such as turning a warehouse owned by the telecommunications company into a community makerspace — a shared venue that provides members with tools and machines — or a Masonic Lodge, built in 1900, into commercial space and apartments.
“If you go down to Des Moines and Omaha, they started doing this 20 years ago. Why haven’t we been doing this in these small towns?” asked Mickey Anderson, president of the Stanton Area Industrial Foundation.
The Industrial Foundation started building new homes in Stanton 25 years ago and is now working to redevelop older buildings, including a former gas station that could be used to house an artist residency program. About an hour’s drive away from the Omaha metropolitan area, Anderson said the town is trying to redevelop its older buildings to take advantage of it status as a bedroom community.
“One group cannot accomplish what Stanton has. It’s taken the whole community, including the school and the City Council,” Anderson said.
‘IT CREATES ANXIETY’
Gronen stressed that communities and developers put together a plan before embarking on a revitalization project. Without one, he said, the vision for the project can be lost.
“That is the most difficult thing for people to get their heads around,” Gronen said of planning.
“…it’s impossible, frankly, for a community to expect anyone to make an investment in their downtown or Millwork District if they haven’t made the initial investment to bring it up to standards.”
– David Heiar
Director, Jackson County Economic Alliance
At the same time, Gronen said it’s worth taking the risk of investing in a plan — which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars — even if final tenants and revenue sources have yet to be lined up.
“It creates anxiety — ‘Oh, my God, you’re going to plan a multimillion-dollar project on paper and you’re going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to do all that planning work, and you’re not even sure if you can pull all the tax credits together and gap funding and bank financing?’” Gronen said.
“But if you don’t do those things, you’re never going to get anywhere.”
Plus, Iowa communities can’t flood the market all at once with new, leasable space, Dickinson and Gronen cautioned. Additions have to be put on sustainably.
“No community, large or small, can just go in and, in a matter of a couple of years, it’s all done, because you saturate the market with property that can’t be absorbed,” Dickinson said.
‘NOT FOR THE WEAK OF HEART’
Communities and developers also will need to be willing to put together financing packages that likely will include layers of state and federal tax incentives, private equity, bank financing and more, Heiar and Gronen said.
“It’s not for the weak of heart. … It’s one thing to put your district together or to put your plan together for an area, but then when you look at each of the projects within that district, each of them will have to have their own financing package,” said Heiar, now director of the Jackson County Economic Alliance.
Communities can create financing programs, such as a revolving loan fund or pooling money into a not-for-profit, to pay for the redevelopment of vacant buildings, Mannheimer said.
City government also may need to shell out the money to improve nearby infrastructure. Dubuque, Heiar said, spent millions of dollars to improve roads and water and sewer lines in the Millwork District, which included replacing some wooden water mains from the district’s origins.
“It’s hard, it’s impossible, frankly, for a community to expect anyone to make an investment in their downtown or Millwork District if they haven’t made the initial investment to bring it up to standards,” he said.
Even with those challenges, Gronen, Anderson and Heiar all said the redevelopment of historic buildings is worthwhile.
Those structures, they said, offer authenticity and a uniqueness for communities that otherwise would be lost.
“I continue to run into this today. People say, ‘It’s an old building, it’s served its usefulness, we just need to get rid of it and put up something new,’” Heiar said.
“ … But there’s just something about some of these old buildings you just can’t recreate.”
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