City Profile: Waterloo, Iowa
Waterloo is in the northeast region of Iowa, approximately 105 miles
northeast of Des Moines and 55 miles northwest of Cedar Rapids. The
city is located in the Cedar River valley, linked by the river to
neighboring Cedar Falls to the west and Evansdale to the east. The
Black Hawk Creek feeds the Cedar River, which eventually converges with
the Iowa River and subsequently the Mississippi River, all of which form
a significant flood basin. Downtown Waterloo is well-protected from
flooding, although its sturdy flood walls make visual and physical
access to the river difficult. The Waterloo-Cedar Falls metropolitan
area is surrounded by gently-rolling agricultural land, with corn and
soybeans the predominant agricultural crops.
Before the first descendents of Europeans arrived, the Iowa plains were
home to the Sac and Fox Indians, led by Chief Black Hawk, who is
commemorated today in the name of the county containing the city of
Waterloo. The area that was to become Waterloo was first visited by
pioneers in 1845. George and Mary Hanna established a homesite in a
place known as Prairie Rapids Crossing. The following year, two more
families arrived, and by 1851 the growing town received a post office
and a permanent title. There are several accounts of the naming of the
town, some relating to Napolean's infamous last battle, others to the
"Waterlow," a good crossing point in the Cedar River. In 1853, the town
was surveyed and platted, and two years later Waterloo was named the
county seat. The Illinois Central railroad came to town in 1861,
bringing a period of rapid growth, and in 1868 Waterloo officially
became a city second class, with a mayor and a city council. The city's
economy has historically been diverse, with flour mills, sawmills,
tractor factories, and slaughterhouses its main components.
The 1980's were not kind to Iowa. While most other regions of the
country suffered a brief recession at the beginning of the 1980's, they
also rebounded quickly to a period of rapid growth through at least the
late 1980's. In contrast, it is estimated that Waterloo lost 14% of its
population during the prolonged agricultural recession, while Black Hawk
county lost 11.4%. Altogether the market region lost nearly 30% of its
population. Despite government subsidy programs, continuing
agricultural surpluses collapsed prices and forged large numbers of
small farmers into bankrupty. Most of these family farmers simply could
not compete with the larger distribution networks of corporate farmers,
and most of those who have been able to compete have incorporated and
modernized their family businesses.
However, the farmers did not suffer financial hardship alone: Waterloo's
industries were forced to trim sizable portions of their workforce to
weather the agricultural recession, and some closed their doors
altogether. John Deere & Company, the metropolitan area's largest
emplloyer, lost 10,000 jobs. Since 1985 it has recovered but total
employment has remained at one-half the record 1979 employment level of
16,000. Rath Packing Company, a sizeable pork slaughtering and
processing plant, went bankrupt in 1985. It employed 2500 people
at its height.
Several of the most signifiacnt vacant industrial sites are
now being reorganized as a Regional Heritage Area,
through an organization called Silos & Smokestacks. These sites have
contributed so much to the history of agriculture and industry in the
United States and will help promote northeastern Iowa's rich cultural
hertiage as the heart of America's food-producing region, through
education, heritage tourism, and research into sustainable agriculture.
Waterloo has the feel of a well-worn industrial river city. Its
downtown is a mix of old and new architecture, with several fine
examples of renovated 1920's commercial architecture providing strong
focal points for redevelopment. The city boasts two Carnegie libraries
and a small, compact cultural center on the east side of the river,
including the Grout Museum, the Science Imaginarium, and the Rensselaer
Russell House Museum.
The river plays a dominant role in the form of downtown Waterloo, but
its currently limited accessibility tends to create a barrier, both
physical and psychological, between the downtown and the river, and
between the two sides of the river. Historically there has been a
perceived difference between those living on the east side and those on
the west side. Dredging operations in the river provided landfill for
John Deere's expansion for many years and kept the river clear for
pleasure traffic, but those operations ceased in the 1980's and the
river is currently not navigable for boating during summer dry periods.
In addition, improvements to the city's flood wall system in the 1970's
eliminated many of the possibilities for pedestrian access to the
river, although some small concrete plazas along the riverfront remain.
The improved flood walls did, howerver, save the city from the devastating
flooding the plagued Iowa in 1993.
Downtown Waterloo is surrounded by enormous industrial sites which, even
taken individually, dwarf the scale of downtown in comparison. The John
Deere & Company plant, the largest tractor manufacturing operation in
the western hemisphere, occupies some 400 acres west of downtown. In
addition, the Rath Packing Company, now mostly vacant, is a 50-acre site
east of downtown. After Rath closed the site was parcelled off for
various smaller industrial uses.
Recent Design Issues
These huge industrial sites have recentrly been the focus of much
careful study, for their potential to anchor an American Heritage Area
for northeastern Iowa, a relatively new tool for historic preservation
and economic development. Under the direction of Silos & Smokestacks,
these sites would be restored and redeveloped as educational and tourist
centers. Together with renovated working farms, the factories would
collectively tell the story of northeastern Iowa's role in American food
production, from the planting of corn see to the processing of cattle
and pigs, and from the first coming of the railroads to the rural
electrification efforts. To capitalize on the growing market for
"heritage tourism," the industrial and agricultural aspects of this
region would be marketed together, promising to attract 650,000 visitors
annually and generate over $66 million in tourism income for the area.
Planners hope that this economic development will further attract new
industries to the area, particularly high-technology industries, as they
seek the quality of life and rich cultural history northeastern Iowa
offers. The state of Iowa has installed an impressive network of
fiber-optic cables across the state, but each municipality is
responsible for developing this network within its own borders.
Waterloo will be extremely attractive to communitcation and information
industries when this network is completed.
In addition to current comprehensive efforts to develop the region as an
American Heritage Area, Waterloo has also recently studied its U.S.
Highway 218 corridor, particularly the area nearest downtown Waterloo
known as the "Gateway Development District." The city has established
design review requirements for new construction in this area, as well as
landscaping and sign regulation, including a ban on new billboards. The
city would like to extend these design and landscaping standards into
Like cities across America, downtown Waterloo is currently studying ways
to make its downtown more competitive with suburban malls and office
parks. The agricultural recession affected downtown Waterloo more than
it did the suburban areas, and many in the metropolitan area assumed
that the downtown would never fully recover. The city is now developing
incentives to make downtown development attractive once again. Recent
trends indicate the beginnings of a comeback
present many exciting opportunities for downtown Waterloo.
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