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New Life From Old Buildings

Group Working to Create a Vibrant Warehouse District Downtown

M.D. Kittle

Dubuque Telegraph Herald

June 18, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by the Dubuque Telegraph Herald, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Dubuque Telegraph Herald.]

It's not there, but Tim McNamara can see it.

It's a skeleton at best, a shadow perhaps of things to come. Its full potential has not begun to be tapped. But McNamara and others like him believe they can see Dubuque's future bounding from its past.

They are the members of the warehouse district committee, part of the Envision 2010 campaign of 10 big ideas aimed at changing Dubuque in the next five years.

But unlike many of the other committees toiling to break new ground, the warehouse district committee sees possibility in some of the city's work-worn buildings - envisioning a community within a community that could one day serve as the city's lifeblood.

"It takes a very special person to look at a dusty old warehouse, plunk down $150,000 and say I want to live here," said McNamara, of Dubuque-based Wilmac Property Co. "I have the vision to see this."

As ambitious a plan as the committee is pushing, the general public might need X-ray vision to see what McNamara sees.

The idea is to revitalize the city's old millworking district, loosely from 11th to fifth streets with White Street as its western border. The ultimate goal is to transform the long-idle factory buildings into residential, retail, entertainment and cultural centers. It would be a center akin to thriving warehouse districts in the big cities, albeit on a smaller scale.

"This is not an exclusive situation for Dubuque, Iowa," said Dan LoBianco, executive director of Main Street Ltd. and member of the 40-plus member Warehouse District Committee.

"People have been really successful with really nice projects that are bigger than Dubuque, but we have wonderful aspirations," LoBianco said.

The committee is studying districts in places like Boston, Chicago and Milwaukee, learning how to resurrect blighted, vacant factory districts with new identities.

Enthusiasts are drawing some inspiration just down the street.

"I think the same sort of development that's gone on at Lower Main is going to drift down this way, although at a different scale," McNamara said.

The stumbling block to a revitalized warehouse district isn't imagination; it's cash. As members are quick to point out, changing the area will take courageous investors.

McNamara, among others, has stood on the forefront of redevelopment in the district. His commercial property at 801 Jackson St., a former factory, houses a diverse lineup of tenants - from a health club to a graphics arts company.

That's the idea.

But change is slow. McNamara continues to market a former factory at Ninth and Jackson streets, hoping to convert the property into loft-style condominiums. While he said there's been plenty of interest in the idea, there hasn't been a taker.

"We continue to show this space every week, but most people's reaction is, 'I wish you were farther along,'" the developer said. He insists he'd pump in the $1.5 million needed to renovate the property if he could get that first residential investor willing to commit to a loft.

So, what about McNamara or his fellow committee members? Why don't they play pioneer to the transformation? McNamara said they, like others, are waiting to see what happens. It's kind of like a party; nobody wants to be the first to arrive.

Katie Bahl, facilitator for the Warehouse District Committee, said the early meetings have been dynamic, generating a flurry of ideas ranging from the pragmatic to the bold. The quest now is to refine the concepts into action plans, tracking funding sources and connecting resources.

"It may be baby steps," she said, "but we want to make this warehouse district a more vibrant place than it is now."

There is lots of space in which to dream. A four-building complex alone in the vicinity would provide an estimated 700,000 square feet of developable space.

While private investment is expected to lead redevelopment, the city would play a role in the transformation. Any changes would demand a host of infrastructure upgrades.

The city already is involved. At a recent meeting, the Dubuque City Council approved a petition to nominate the "Millworking Historic District" to the National Register of Historic Places. The process, sponsored by the Dubuque Historic Preservation Commission, is critical to landing federal and state tax credits. Properties like the Grand Opera House, Henry Stout Senior Apartments and the Heartland Financial USA building (formerly the Walsh Stores) have taken advantage of the historic preservation credits.

"The area itself is unique in the United States," Bahl said of Dubuque's millworking center. "It's one of the few places in the United States where there still is a relatively intact millworking district, and there is a higher chance that would make it more feasible for placement on the register of historic places."

The estimated cost to prepare the nomination is $7,000, a line item not included in the city's fiscal year 2007 budget, according to a recent city memo.

McNamara said big ideas take time, and the warehouse district concept won't become reality over night. He and other committee members, however, remain confident their energy will be infectious, and interest will continue to grow.

"It is not a matter of if but when."