So maybe the most instructive lessons for economic developers lies in the experience of the one top-ranked city for “Economic Strength” that didn’t benefit from any of these advantages: Dubuque, Iowa (No. 9). Until several years ago, the city at the intersection of Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin on the Mississippi River was dealing with devastation wrought by the troubles of both of its key industries: manufacturing and agriculture. Dubuque Packing closed, and then John Deere sliced its workforce by about three-quarters from its peak. Dubuque lost 10 percent of its population.
Then IBM began looking at an empty Depression-era department store for a facility, and local economic development leadership pounced. The city of just 57,000 offered $52 million in incentives to land the 1,300-person IBM site, focusing on the important issue of workplace availability. When IBM expressed concern about the local talent pool, Greater Dubuque downloaded and printed off 600 relevant resumes aspirants had put in its job-search database, according to PSMag.com. And it focused not just on the immediate population but built a case to IBM why the facility could draw workers from as far as 100 miles away from Dubuque — an area that encompasses some other significant cities as well as major universities including the University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Iowa, and University of Northern Iowa.
In 2009, IBM picked Dubuque, and the city hasn’t looked back. Applying lessons learned during that victory, city and regional officials have used a balanced approach that focuses on both local business-retention efforts and outreach to potential new companies. And Dubuque has picked up a diversity of new job-creating projects from companies ranging from Hormel Foods, which invested $36 million in the area last year, to Bodine Electric.