When Chris James told his wife, Lindsay, last fall that he wanted to take a job teaching at the University of Dubuque’s theology school, she was, frankly, underwhelmed.
The family — which includes two kids under age 5 — was living in Boston at the time and Lindsay could not imagine living in a small Iowa city. But she agreed to give Dubuque a try and says she has been delighted with the move.
“We’re both originally from the West Coast and had never had a Midwest experience,” she said. “He was excited about the opportunity, but I wasn’t. I realized after living here a short time, however, that this city has a lot to offer. I enjoy being in Dubuque for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the opportunity to own our own home, with a big yard for the kids right next to the college where Chris teaches.”
The James clan isn’t alone. Many other families from urban areas have made the move to smaller cities in recent years and found them to their liking because of lower housing costs, friendliness and a slower pace of life. Young people and boomers are also part of the trend, focusing on walkable downtowns.
In Boston, the James family paid $1,400 a month for a two-bedroom, one-bath apartment and their kids often played on a concrete parking lot in the back of their building. Now, she said, they have a three-bedroom, two-bath home within walking distance to her husband’s job. They paid $173,000 for the house and the adjacent grassy lot. Their mortgage is just $900 a month.
“Our kids love it here,” she said. “It’s dramatically different and very nice. Neighbors come out of their houses and introduce themselves. Kids play outdoors here a lot more. My 5-year-old is at a small pre-school and I’m able to serve on the PTA.”
She lauded the city’s “Distinctively Dubuque” program for newcomers, which has introduced her family to museums, park, cultural activities and other offerings.
“We’re looking forward to summer to do more exploring,” she said. “And I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by how beautiful Dubuque’s location is in the bluffs rising from the Mississippi River. My stereotype, of course, was that Iowa was just flat cornfields.”
Terry Duggan, a former mayor of Dubuque, said his city has rebounded significantly in recent decades and that the James family is an example that Dubuque is on the upswing. Back in the 1980s, he said, unemployment in the area was over 20 percent after the John Deere agricultural equipment maker laid off 5,000 employees and a meat-packing plant closed and laid off 3,000 workers. When the plant reopened, wages were cut in half. The future looked bleak.
“There were satirical T-shirts printed back then that asked 'Will the last person leaving Dubuque please turn off the lights?'” he said. “A lot of people left during that time.”
But Duggan, a real estate broker who served as mayor from 1994 to 2006, said eventually John Deere began hiring again, the city’s economy diversified and Dubuque bought 960 acres of land to build what has become a successful industrial park. Nordstrom built a regional distribution center there and local companies expanded. The city also has a 100-acre technology park that is nearly two-thirds full.
“When I was running for mayor and knocking on doors, one lady scolded me and said ‘I raised and educated three kids here and they now live in Houston, Denver and San Francisco. A smart mayor would figure out a way to get them back to town with good jobs.’ And some of them have.”
“Dubuquers are pretty resilient,” said Duggan, who worked with a new city manager and the director of the Greater Dubuque Development Corp. after he was elected to promote a more user-friendly experience for people dealing with city hall.
“We had to restore confidence in ourselves and our government, rather than being in an adversarial relationship,” added Duggan, chairman of the Iowa Real Estate Commission and owner of Duggan Iowa Realty.
“It’s worked, because we’ve had major expansions of 18 industries here in town in recent years. Being a businessman, I was all for government providing the necessary tools and then just getting out of the way.”
Unemployment is now at around 3.5 percent. He said the city also cleaned up high-crime areas, added parks, renovated homes — rebuilding their front porches to improve neighborliness — and gotten grants to improve the city’s picturesque downtown, which dates to the mid-19th century.
“One of the first things we did was buy the old Merchants Hotel on Lower Main Street, knock it down and replace it with the new Chamber of Commerce building,” he said. “If you didn’t know, you would think it was built in the 1800s because it looks so authentic.”
“There was a cost to the taxpayers for doing this, but it’s been worth it,” he said. “Over time, we’ve worked on 40 to 50 houses. It’s been a remarkable transformation.” Nor did it hurt that in 2003, the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium opened on Dubuque’s waterfront, attracting more than 250,000 visitors a year.
Dubuque has also focused on becoming more sustainable while it pursues economic growth and cultural vibrancy, said Cori Burbach, the city’s Sustainable Community Coordinator. That effort began in 2006 when the city council appointed a diverse group of 40 members that included environmentalists, the Chamber of Commerce, schools and neighborhood associations.
“One of the best examples is our ‘Smarter Sustainable Dubuque’ effort, which is a partnership with IBM and its ‘Smarter Planet Initiative,’” she said. “We’ve really tried to give our residents access to data with ‘personalized dashboards’ that show how they use resources so they can make more educated decisions. A lot of it has centered around smart meter use, but we’ve also tackled the silos of water use, energy, transportation and the most recent one we finished was garbage and recycling. For some, this is about conserving resources, for others it’s about saving money and their economic bottom line.”
She said the city has also redesigned public transit routes to make it easy for users to get around — which resulted in a 28-percent hike in bus usage — added bike racks on buses for cyclists and helped start community gardens around the city. The first one was for a homeless shelter. Now, she said, each fire station has a garden and firefighters work with neighborhood kids to tend them.
“Dubuque is a very hilly city,” she said. “So people can ride down hills to get work, but getting home can be very difficult. With the racks, though, a lot more people are riding — at least one way.”
Out in Bozeman, Montana (population 39,000), new residents are flowing in to take advantage of the region’s rugged natural beauty, numerous hiking trails, trout streams and three excellent ski resorts, including Big Sky and Bridger Bowl. It’s also home to Montana State University and its 16,000 students. To serve its growing population, new houses are springing up and developers are putting up 1,000 new apartments. The price of an average three-bedroom, two-bath house remains high, however, at roughly $255,000.
Though the most recent recession hit Bozeman, it has rebounded nicely. According to Daryl Schliem, head of the local Chamber, the 90-mile region surrounding the city generated almost 50 percent of the state’s tax revenue last year. He arrived in 2010 and encouraged the city to create an economic development department, which now has a staff of two. Since then, the economy has diversified, attracting high-tech companies such as Zoot Enterprise, which was recently purchased by Oracle.
Sustainability is also important in Bozeman, with a focus on energy efficiency, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, water conservation, stormwater management and developing a Complete Streets program to make the city more walkable and bikeable, while integrating all types of transportation.
“Our triple bottom line is people, planet and profit,” said Natalie Meyer, the town’s sustainability program manager. “It has to make social and economic sense.”
“Many of our buildings have solar energy and are LEED-certified,” she said. “And every time we embark on a new structure, there is an emphasis on making it as sustainable and efficient as possible. We also have four community gardens managed by the city — including one at city hall — among others so people can grow their own food. And we’re working on infill and increasing urban density.”
Urban residents are also moving to the small southeastern Pennsylvania cities of York and Lancaster in what many people know as Amish Country.
Bill Hartman, president of the York County Community Foundation, said there has been a big emphasis on revitalizing downtown York to make it more vibrant and attractive to residents with more restaurants and entertainment options. Many of them have opened in historic brick buildings that were built in the Colonial and Federal styles in the 19th Century.
York (population 40,000) suffered during the recent downturn but has bounced back and diversified its economic base spread among manufacturing, wholesaling, retail and a small but growing tech sector. The city also has a baseball team, the Independent League York Revolution, which plays in a new stadium. Its construction spurred more than $50 million in construction in the surrounding neighborhood.
Shilvosky Buffaloe, interim director of the city’s Economic and Community Development Office, said York has benefitted from investors who have renovated buildings in the downtown.
“We’re not very big, just 5.2 square miles, so with half a dozen young developers taking on projects in the city and pushing urban revitalization, the excitement is palpable,” he said. “We’ve got traction.”
Buffaloe said sustainability is a key part of the city’s efforts to improve itself and make it more attractive to residents.
“We’re developing a ‘Green Print’ for York,” he said. “We’re looking at creative ways to manage stormwater runoff and other impacts that happen when you develop as densely as we are doing in our urban core. We’re also trying to tie in various intermodal transportation elements with our bike paths and pedestrian walkways and mass transportation so it all works cohesively to reduce the amount of vehicular traffic overall.
“In addition, we’re working with other stakeholders in the community through the ‘Eat, Play, Breathe York’ program, which is geared to getting children to be more active. And we’re trying to do a better job of connecting the 4,500 students at York College via the York County Heritage Rail Trail. The school’s main commons is less than a mile away, so it’s easily bikeable or walkable. We want the students to embrace the city more and vice versa.”
About 25 miles to the east across the Susquehanna River, the city of Lancaster (pop. 40,000) is also experiencing a boom, said two-term mayor Rick Gray. Plans are being developed to add a second tower to the downtown Hyatt Hotel, which is part of the city’s convention center.
“Our progress has been the product of cooperative effort with a diverse group of people — including business and neighborhood groups — working together, none of whom cared who got the credit for it,” he said. “We have a hotel convention center that cost $170 million after it survived nine lawsuit attempts to block it. People said the sky was falling, but because of public/private financing we finally got it built.”
He said the convention center spurred the opening of new restaurants and retail shops in historic downtown Lancaster. In addition, he said city and private investors also put $8 million into structural upgrades at Lancaster’s popular public market, which was built in the 1880s and was “getting a little long in the tooth.”
Streetscape improvements also have enhanced the city’s attractiveness, he said. As a result, four blocks of North Prince Street has been transformed into Gallery Row with numerous art galleries that draw not only locals downtown, but visitors from Baltimore and Philadelphia. The Pennsylvania College of Art & Design is also located on North Prince. York’s Fulton Theater — the oldest continually operating theater in the country — presents top shows featuring actors from New York and is making money, too, he said. The city’s orchestra is also popular, he noted.
“Some people have described Lancaster as a little Boston,” he said. “I’m not sure about that, but I take it as a compliment.”
Gray — an attorney who has lived in the same house for 42 years — said people are rediscovering the walkability he has enjoyed for decades. He strolls several blocks to his downtown office and has lunch almost every day with his wife, an artist whose studio his just one block from their home. Sometimes he walks home for lunch.
“You could say this is an old-fashioned lifestyle that has come back into vogue,” he said, noting that the city is working to promote walking, cycling and public transit in town to serve and attract old and new residents. “Young people don’t like to be car dependent and many boomers are giving up suburban living to live in downtowns all over. Why, I can walk to nearly 30 restaurants from my house. Half a block from city hall, a condo building is going up with prices ranging from $450,000 to $750,000. Before a spade hit the ground, 12 of 14 were sold. That’s remarkable.”
Jeff Speck, an urban planner and author of “Walkable City,” said Lancaster has a lot of things going for it, including numerous downtown anchors, great restaurants, a thriving arts scene, history and other cultural activities.
“It’s super walkable as American cities go,” said Speck, also the principal of Speck & Associates and author of Lancaster’s walkability study. “It’s a beautiful place to live with one of the largest historical districts of any city in the country and a walkable train station, too.”
But Speck said most of Lancaster’s downtown streets are state highways, which means the city is locked in ongoing negotiations with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to reclaim them.
“Right now, the typical downtown street is a three-lane, one-way road that encourages drivers to speed, so drivers are going 40 instead of 25,” he said.
If he could redesign those roads, which he did in his report, he’d revert them back to a two-way network to slow down drivers. He knows that may take some time, so in the short term (while they remain one-way), he’d convert the three-lane thoroughfares back into two-lane streets.
“A typical block in downtown Lancaster has half a block that is already a two-lane road with parking on both sides,” he said. “But the other half of the block has three wide lanes of driving and no parallel parking. Unfortunately, that undermines both the safety of the pedestrians using the sidewalk and undermines the vitality of shops that depend on people parking in front of them. You don’t want to be hanging out on the sidewalk and walking or dining without parallel parking.”
Brian E. Clark is a Wisconsin-based journalist and a former staff writer on the business desk of The San Diego Union-Tribune. He is a contributor to the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Sun-Times, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Dallas Morning News and other publications.