Thanks to grants and private investment, Maquoketa has made progress on tackling deteriorating streets and buildings, plus a housing and workforce shortage.
David Heiar, a senior adviser for Jackson County Economic Alliance, said Maquoketa began a reinvestment program four years ago in the downtown area, including repairing streets, sidewalks and water lines. Around the same time, the city started looking into a lack of housing, which has made it difficult to attract a larger workforce.
For the first time in years, Heiar said significant investment is being poured into the city, resulting in new development and the beautification of the downtown.
"Based on what I'm seeing in leadership and groups in the community, I see a real change in mental attitude," he said. "There's a lot of community spirit. When I started here six years ago, people felt we could never accomplish these things. But we've had some great successes. Do we have room to grow? Absolutely. But I think there's been a world of difference."
This month, Maquoketa officials learned the Iowa Economic Development Authority, or IEDA, has chosen the city as a pilot community for an upper story housing project.
The $500,000 grant for the downtown housing project will create up to five apartments in the upper level of 124 South Main St., which houses the Maquoketa Art Experience and Maquoketa Chamber of Commerce. The total project is estimated to be $900,000, with the city committing $40,000 and the remainder of funding coming from the property owner.
"Over the past few years, Maquoketa has been acutely aware of the struggles of increasing workforce housing opportunities, and in particular addressing a quality rental shortage," said Nicolas Hockenberry, director of Jackson County Alliance, in a news release. "The partnership between the city, property owner and the state is a great example of how public-private cooperation can be leveraged to address a community need."
He said the project should continue work that began in 2015, when a housing study showed Maquoketa is in need of hundreds of units in the next decade, including affordable rentals and workforce housing.
To begin addressing the need, Heiar said the city has started a "pocket neighborhood" project, where a county-owned block in the northwest part of the community is being transformed into a neighborhood with 10 affordable homes.
He said plans include the construction of a couple of homes this year, with all 10 houses built in the next few years. Houses will range between $145,000 and $160,000.
"It's a struggle here, like it is everywhere, to find employees. And one of the first challenges is housing," he said. "Even if you get a new employee — and we hear this every fall with the school district — it's hard for them to find a place to live. So many are commuting from other communities. This will hopefully be one way to minimize turnover, by providing additional housing opportunities."
But housing is only one piece of the puzzle, he said. The city's buildings and Main Street area have been deteriorating without much reinvestment in the past years. And the city has still been recovering from a 2008 fire that destroyed multiple buildings downtown.
"I think the fire was a low point after a number of years of no real growth and no real movement," Heiar said. "But you have to start with a plan, and we started our visioning plan around seven years ago. We also need to have leaders willing to take some calculated risks and look at things differently than we have in the past. I like to believe our office has helped. There was no economic development office here six years ago."
Four years ago, the city council committed around $4 million, he said, for the downtown improvement project.
"That was one of the major cries we were hearing from the citizens here, was that we need to reinvest in the downtown, which has been neglected for a long time," he said. "The council took that to heart. But it wasn't without controversy. It was a large amount of money, but it was a solid investment in the downtown."
Other infrastructure improvement projects are now in the works, he said, with Maquoketa last year receiving a federal BUILD grant for roughly $4 million to reconstruct Platt Street. The project, which also includes city and state funding, will include sewer lines, new sidewalks and other improvements to the key street.
The economic alliance office also has developed an incentive program to encourage private developers to update storefronts downtown. Last year, Heiar said the office received a $500,000 grant from the state to update 15 storefronts in the downtown area. The project is expected to begin this summer.
"I definitely see some major changes happening in the community," he said. "It's hard to bring in a new business or industry when you drive into a downtown that looks like nobody's invested in it for 50 years. Now when people drive into our downtown, they're impressed. Even five years ago that wouldn't have been the case."
Heiar said Jackson County Economic Alliance also is focused on supporting existing and expanding businesses in Maquoketa, adding Husco, Family Dollar and other companies have added jobs in recent years.
But he said Maquoketa is only "scratching the surface," and more work is needed to continue moving forward. City leaders will need to decide what to do with a 12-acre site that's being vacated by Jackson County's hospital after the Jackson County Maquoketa Regional Health Center Board voted to move the hospital across town.
And he said the city is in need of senior housing, plus more housing and job opportunities for a young workforce. Jackson County has been using a University of Iowa study exploring how to recruit and retain young people in the area, which found a need for affordable housing, child care and more entrepreneurial opportunities.
"This most recent grant for the upper story housing in the downtown would be the kind of thing that would be appealing, as one of the many elements needed to recruit young folks," Heiar said.
While several improvements are still needed, Heiar said recent investment and community partnerships have pushed Maquoketa in the right direction.
"A key to a successful community is knowing how to partner," he said. "The city has been working with our office, the Chamber, the county, local utilities and the state economic development authority and other partners. The more partners you can bring to the table, the more successful you can be. I think that's one element of what's led to this change in Maquoketa."