The effects of COVID-19 continued to exert influence over the local business scene in 2021, as companies faced questions over vaccine mandates, dealt with the challenges of staff shortages and tried to navigate through supply-chain interruptions.
Also in 2021, Dubuque County’s largest employer faced its first major strike in 35 years, while one of Dubuque’s newest manufacturers began producing pet food.
Here are the Top 10 local business stories of 2021, in no particular order, as chosen by the Telegraph Herald’s editorial staff.
DEERE UNION WORKERS STAGE FIVE-WEEK STRIKE
Dubuque County’s largest employer faced its first major strike since 1986.
Union workers walked out of Deere & Co. facilities on Oct. 14, beginning a work stoppage that lasted five weeks. Picketers became a fixture at multiple entrances to John Deere Dubuque Works and members also routinely gathered outside the United Auto Workers Local 94 Hall on Central Avenue.
Company officials said they used salaried employees and other workers to try to keep factories operating during the strike.
Union workers rejected tentative agreements with the company in early October and again on Nov. 9. Contract ratification finally came eight days later, when 61% of the members of the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America approved a contract, according to union officials. Support was even stronger among union members in Dubuque, with nearly 68% voting for ratification.
Under the approved deal, union members receive a 10% pay increase in their first year of the contract, as well as subsequent increases of 5% in the contract’s third and fifth years. In addition, the offer included 3% lump-sum payments in the second, fourth and sixth years of the deal, as well as an $8,500 ratification bonus. The deal also preserved a pension option for new employees, made workers eligible for health insurance sooner and maintained their no-premium health insurance coverage.
Meanwhile, Deere & Co. reported an increase in net income for the quarter and fiscal year that concluded on Oct. 31, capping off a strong performance despite the strike. The company reported net income of $1.28 billion in the fourth quarter, up from $757 million for the same, three-month stretch the previous year.
COVID-19 SIDE EFFECTS EXPAND TO INCLUDE VACCINE CONFUSION, SUPPLY-CHAIN ISSUES
The COVID-19 pandemic affected area businesses in various ways this year.
In the spring, legislation passed by state lawmakers, then signed into law by Gov. Kim Reynolds on May 20, limited local governments’ ability to impose mask mandates. Dubuque County and City of Dubuque leaders dropped mask mandates in May, although the city reimposed a mask mandate within municipal properties in September. Some businesses continued to require the use of face coverings indoors, while most did not.
By November, area business officials and lawmakers faced confusion over vaccine mandates. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration released rules that employers with more than 100 staff members require vaccination against COVID-19 or a negative test for the coronavirus each week. Those rules roughly coincided with Iowa lawmakers passing a bill that strengthened exemptions for workers who do not want to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.
Meanwhile, the restaurant industry struggled with pandemic effects for a second straight year, and industry officials estimated that about 800 restaurants and bars in Iowa would permanently close due to COVID-19.
A variety of factors caused manufacturers and retailers to face pandemic-related supply-chain issues. Shortages of raw materials slowed efforts to manufacture new items, and when the proper components did become available, reduced capacity at plants dramatically reduced productivity. Labor shortages then complicated and delayed the transportation of finished products. The problems were particularly acute for furniture retailers and construction businesses.
As holiday shopping began to swell in November, both chain stores and local small businesses reported feeling the effects of the supply-chain problems.
‘NOW HIRING’ SIGNS POINT TO LOCAL WORKFORCE ISSUES
Area residents couldn’t travel too far without seeing “Help wanted” signs in 2021, when a combination of low unemployment and fewer job applicants meant extra hours and days of work for many existing employees and curtailed operational hours and services for some businesses.
In September 2021, 1,600 Dubuque County residents received unemployment benefits — 500 more than in September 2019. But the number of individuals employed or actively seeking employment dropped in that time frame from 57,800 in September 2019 to 54,800 in September 2021, representing 3,000 fewer people either working or seeking work.
Local unemployment rates in the autumn ranged from 1.6% in Lafayette County in Wisconsin to 3.4% in Jackson County in Iowa. Dubuque County had an unemployment rate of 3.2% in October, a figure lower than the state average of 3.9% and national average of 4.6%.
PET FOOD MANUFACTURER KICKS OFF DUBUQUE OPERATIONS
The nation’s sixth-largest pet food manufacturer announced plans in December 2020 to purchase a 275,000-square-foot facility in Dubuque that was built by Flexsteel Industries on Seippel Road and begin operations.
Those operations launched this year, with Simmons Pet Food holding a ribbon-cutting ceremony in July.
Simmons’ Dubuque facility was employing 150 people by this summer, with plans to add more staff. Workers began producing 22-ounce cans of pet food on July 5. The company announced plans to add 5-ounce and 13-ounce offerings within a year.
ILLINOIS LEGAL POT BUSINESS DEBUTS, FLOURISHES
The economy of Jo Daviess County, Ill., entered a new era in the spring with the opening of the tri-state-area’s first two legal cannabis dispensaries.
Verilife, a recreational marijuana dispensary in Galena, opened on March 6 — 430 days after adult recreational use of cannabis and regulated sales of marijuana were legalized in Illinois. A facility named The Dispensary opened in East Dubuque in May.
By this fall, the two establishments had brought in large sums for both East Dubuque and Galena. Both cities receive tax revenue from the dispensaries, including regular sales tax and an additional 3% excise tax enacted by each community’s City Council.
Previously, city officials had been unable to reveal their takings in cannabis tax revenue, because only one dispensary is operating in each city. If the city released the revenue, citizens could calculate that dispensary’s total sales, violating the company’s right to keep its sales private.
However, The Dispensary recently granted East Dubuque city officials permission to reveal the cannabis tax revenue.
For sales in July, the most recent month for which the city has received funds, East Dubuque collected $18,719 in tax revenue from The Dispensary. That represents almost $625,000 in sales in that month at the business.
SPORTS WAGERING A WINNER FOR DUBUQUE’S CASINOS
The amount of sports wagering soared locally this year, as 2021 opened with a significant statewide rule change. As of Jan. 1, residents were no longer required to visit an Iowa casino prior to using online and mobile sports betting platforms.
When Dubuque’s Diamond Jo Casino and Q Casino and Hotel initially opened sportsbooks, they were offered only at a physical betting location within their facilities. Their mobile and online platforms arrived months later, as Diamond Jo partnered with FanDuel to create its sportsbook and Q launched its own Q Sportsbook.
In fiscal year 2021, which concluded on June 30, more than $167 million had been wagered through those two local sportsbooks, according to records maintained by the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission.
Figures showed that the two casinos collected nearly $11.7 million in “net receipts,” which measures the total amount wagered minus the money paid out to winning bettors — essentially the casino sportsbooks’ profits before factoring in administrative costs, labor and other expenses.
SMALL TOWNS EXPERIENCE LOCAL BREWERY BOOM
More small towns joined the local craft brewery trend in 2021, providing an amenity previously limited to larger cities.
Maquoketa Brewing, located at 110 S. Main St. in Maquoketa, Iowa, opened its doors in January, fulfilling a goal that had been delayed in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
A Bellevue, Iowa, brewery moved to an expanded location in early April. River Ridge Brewing’s new riverside home at 303 S. Riverview St. replaced the establishment’s former location at 118 N. Riverview Drive. The larger facility allowed the brewery to increase seating and production, expanding from a one-barrel system to a 3.5-barrel system.
Another Jackson County taproom reopened in a newly renovated historic setting in May. The taproom within the historic Gehlen Barn in St. Donatus, Iowa, originally opened from September to the beginning of December in 2020, then closed as the owners resumed renovations within the stone barn, which was built by Peter Gehlen, an immigrant from Luxembourg who settled in St. Donatus in 1846.
In Dubuque County, Textile Brewing, of Dyersville, opened a location in March in Cascade dubbed Corner Taproom. The establishment offers Textile brews, along with a selection of guest beers, liquors and mixed drinks. It opened in the same building as a new Happy Joe’s, and customers can bring their food into the taproom to enjoy with a beverage.
The growing city of Peosta welcomed the opening of a taphouse in November. Darkbird Taphouse offers a variety of on-tap beers and a limited food menu at its location along Thunder Valley Drive, between Thunder Hills and Cox Springs roads. The establishment features 20 on-tap beers, including multiple options from its sister company, Dubuque’s Dimensional Brewing Co.
Dubuque-based 7 Hills Brewing Co. in September opened 7 Hills North in Platteville, Wis. Many of its 22 taps feature beers from other breweries, and 7 Hills North was to feature a 4-barrel brewing system — much smaller than that of the flagship location — that will produce “pilot batches” of new beers.
And in July, Mud Run Beer Co. opened in what was once a movie theater in downtown Stockton, Ill.
FORTUNE 500 FIRM REVERSES COURSE ON PLATTEVILLE PLANS
A Fortune 500 company first announced plans to locate a light manufacturing and distribution center in Platteville in the spring, only to scrap those plans by October.
Cummins, an engine and power generator manufacturer, would have employed at least 200 people at a 342,000-square-foot building in the Platteville Industrial Park.
Cummins officials said market conditions prompted the company to reconsider investment in its facilities.
CREDIT UNION MOVES INTO AWARD-WINNING RESTORATION PROJECT
A local credit union announced plans in 2019 to invest roughly $37 million into the redevelopment of a historic structure on Jackson Street colloquially known as the “Voices” building.
Dubuque Community Credit Union this year continued to move employees into the renovated structure, now named the Dupaco Voices Building, at 1000 Jackson St. The building serves as the credit union’s operations center and incorporates historic and state-of-the-art features.
Dupaco earned a Dubuque Main Street award for best adaptive building reuse for the project, and the credit union soon will be joined in the building by a Dubuque financial planning firm. Steele Capital Management announced plans in September to relocate from its home for 25 years at 788 Main St.
RESTAURANTS, BARS OPEN AND RELOCATE
Developments among local eating and drinking establishments continued to generate buzz in 2021. Among the notable happenings this year:
East Dubuque, Ill., resident Luke Flatin continued his impact on the Dubuque dining scene. The owner of the Sonic restaurant at 2560 Dodge St., which opened in December 2020, he also is the franchisee for the new Rusty Taco restaurant at 3333 Asbury Road that opened in September.
Town Clock Inn announced plans in the summer to close its location in downtown Dubuque and move to rural Peosta, where it will occupy the former home of Junction 21 Restaurant and Bar.
The owners of a successful Thai restaurant in Dubuque opened a second venture in a neighboring storefront. Lina’s Lounge opened at 2055 Holliday Drive. The establishment sits at the opposite end of a shopping center from its namesake, Lina’s Thai Bistro.
Chicago-style deep-dish pizza arrived within Dubuque’s Novelty Iron Works building when Gino’s East pizza restaurant opened for carry-out and delivery in late spring.
Jubeck New World Brewing announced in October plans to expand into nearby space at 1103 Iowa St. that once housed The Wolfhound bar and, earlier, The Aragon Tap.