Two years after announcing a large-scale effort to improve North End housing, Greater Dubuque Development Corp. will hand the initiative off to the City of Dubuque.

The future of the True North initiative was among many topics mentioned during GDDC’s annual meeting, which was held virtually on Tuesday.

The meeting also touched on the impact of COVID-19 and ongoing efforts to help employers and workers navigate the evolving economic landscape.

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“To say this is an unprecedented time would be an understatement,” GDDC President and CEO Rick Dickinson said.

For residents and stakeholders on the North End, however, the challenges and changes tied to the True North initiative were of greatest consequence.

GDDC first announced “Dubuque’s True North” in early 2018, billing the initiative as a way to lift up an area struggling with poverty and blight.

The first phase of the project focused on acquiring and rehabilitating blighted North End rental properties and re-selling them as single-family homes.

Dickinson in 2018 said True North Community Development Corp. hoped to purchase and rehabilitate 50 homes within a six-year span. Only nine parcels have been acquired in the past two years, however.

One structure was demolished, and the land has since been gifted to Habitat for Humanity. Two others have been “gutted and restored” and are now for sale, Dickinson said. The remaining properties are scheduled for rehab and will eventually be sold as single-family homes.

GDDC decided to cede control of these residential improvements and instead focus on commercial development in the North End.

Following Tuesday’s annual meeting, Dickinson acknowledged that the current course of action wasn’t always in the plans.

“This was a bit of an audible,” Dickinson said. “We had always planned to transition (to a commercial focus), but it happened more quickly than anticipated.”

Alexis Steger, housing and community development director for the City of Dubuque, said the True North initiative targets properties that are in disrepair and often attract squatters and illegal drug activity. Improving these structures can have a positive ripple effect on entire neighborhoods.

“We can make sure these properties are positively contributing to the neighborhoods instead of being a blight,” she said.

Changing course

Dickinson acknowledged Tuesday that the goal of rehabbing 50 homes in six years was “overly aggressive.”

Finding properties, negotiating prices and acquiring them at a reasonable cost proved to be more complex and time-consuming than initially expected, he said.

Meanwhile, the City of Dubuque over the past two years has increased its resources for home inspections and construction management. This better positions the city to assess and rehabilitate properties, Steger said.

The Dubuque City Council in December agreed to take over the residential portion of True North. It acquired the first seven parcels in January and the final two at the latest City Council meeting, held June 15.

Steger said the city will initially focus on rehabbing properties that have already been acquired through True North, rather than purchasing new ones.

“We are not looking to purchase any additional homes until these nine parcels are taken care of,” Steger said.

Such an approach makes it all but certain that the initial goal of acquiring and rehabbing 50 properties by 2024 will not be met.

With the city now spearheading the residential portion of the project, GDDC can focus on commercial improvements.

From the outset, GDDC’s True North vision included a plan to support economic development in that area of Dubuque.

Dickinson said future projects could include the development of multi-use properties, housing both business and residential tenants, along major North End corridors such as White Street and Central Avenue.

Dickinson also acknowledged the potential for improvements at many large and well-known sites in the North End, including the former Dubuque Malting and Brewing Co. campus on Jackson Street, the old Flexsteel site on Jackson Street and the former Holy Ghost School and convent on Central Avenue.

“There are large structures with good bones that have fallen on hard times” he said. “As a community, we need to find a higher and better use for them.”

Big picture

Hours before the annual meeting commenced Tuesday, new state data provided another chilling reminder of how the COVID-19 pandemic has altered the local economy.

Unemployment in Dubuque County was 12.2% in May, according to figures released by Iowa Workforce Development. That marks a major increase compared to May 2019, when the jobless rate was just 2.1%.

Outgoing GDDC Board Chairman and Northeast Iowa Community College President Liang Chee Wee emphasized that the past few months have provided a unique learning opportunity.

“(The pandemic) is serving as a mirror,” he said. “It is reflecting what we do well and where we can improve.”

Incoming Chairwoman Wendy Runde, who serves as vice president and general manager at Diamond Jo Casino, closed the meeting on an optimistic note.

“The year ahead will likely be a challenging one … but we will continue to promote growth, drive innovation and champion the greater Dubuque area,” she said.