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Muscatine Remaking Itself

Richard Doak

Des Moines Register

July 16, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by the Des Moines Register, 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 Des Moines Register.]

Yes, Virginia, it is possible for a community in Iowa to make it without having a casino.

Case in point: Muscatine, which is one of Iowa’s under-recognized gems. It’s a lovely mid-sized city tucked unobtrusively into a fold in the Mississippi River below the Quad Cities.

Unlike several other river towns — Marquette, Dubuque, Clinton, Bettendorf, Davenport, Burlington and Fort Madison — Muscatine chose not to have a casino boat. Yet it appears to be one of the most vibrant towns along the river.

Muscatine comes to mind now because it will be the ending point for 10,000 RAGBRAI riders who will pedal across the state July 23-29.

One of the pleasures of being associated with the bicycle tour over a number of years is the opportunity to observe changes in communities between one visit and the next.

When a crew from the Register pulled into Muscatine in January to invite it to be the RAGBRAI terminus this year, we were immediately struck by how much more alive the downtown seemed to be than the last time RAGBRAI ended there five years ago, in 2001.

Gary Carlson, president and CEO of the Greater Muscatine Chamber of Commerce & Industry, cites an impressive list of accomplishments in just a few years. Most were part of Project Pearl of the Mississippi, which was financed with a $1 million state community-attractions grant, matched by about $8 million in local effort.

Included are an aquatic center, new boat launch, restored riverfront buildings, a skateboard park, continued development of an extensive trail system and an environmental learning center in the county.
There’s a new sculpture on the riverfront that celebrates the city’s heritage as a center of pearl-button manufacturing.

Downtown, seven old buildings were turned into Pearl Plaza, with an assortment of shops and residential facilities. Nearby, an old manufacturing warehouse has become a restaurant that offers views of the river.

Existing sports facilities include a well-known soccer complex that is host to the girls state tournament and a multi-use high school field that’s certified for rugby. Yes, they play rugby in Muscatine. A local club has won national championships.

Carlson said the community is now working on Project Pearl of the Mississippi II to bring further improvements on the riverfront, including an interactive water and play area, more improvements in streetscapes and historic lighting.

“You’ve got to keep moving forward,” he said.

Basically, he said, the community decided to turn its 40-acre riverfront into unencumbered public space instead of an anchorage for a gambling boat. “The goal is to have as beautiful riverfront as exists anywhere in Iowa,” he said.

The riverfront improvements, the developing trail system, downtown revitalization and other enhancements are important not only for their own sake but also to help local businesses attract employees.

Firms such as the Stanley Group, an international consulting company, compete worldwide for talent and can point to the quality of life in Muscatine as a selling point.

Muscatine is fortunate for a town its size (22,700 in the city; 41,700 in the county) to be home to a number of locally grown companies that are partners in the community’s wellbeing. Besides Stanley, they include HNI Corp., parent of HON office furniture and Allsteel; Muscatine Foods, parent of Kent feeds and Grain Processing Corp.; and Bandag Inc., the tire retread company founded by the late Roy Carver. Other major employers, such as H.J. Heinz, Monsanto and IPSCO Steel, are not headquartered in Muscatine but have a long association with the community.

They all give Muscatine an international reach and a diverse economy that doesn’t depend on just one industry.

In an era where Iowa worries about whether its manufacturing base can be preserved and whether its mid-sized towns can still thrive, the Muscatine experience indicates a definite yes.

Other communities are not as fortunate as Muscatine in having a number of large, locally grown companies with an interest in keeping the town strong. And most other communities don’t have the innate allure of being on the incomparable Mississippi.

But every community can be just as organized and determined as the people of Muscatine to make their city a great place to live.

That’s the secret of success for any town.