Economic recovery, pet food production, tourism rebound among local business stories to watch

The economic stakes are high as the Dubuque area attempts to recover from COVID-19’s impact.

“This is the greatest challenge in my generation,” said Rick Dickinson, executive director of Greater Dubuque Development Corp.

He estimates there are 4,000 fewer people working in the Dubuque market compared to pre-pandemic levels. He said there are also more than 500 available jobs in Dubuque as 2021 dawns.

“Our challenge in 2021 is working with those folks who were negatively impacted by the pandemic and reaching out to employers and workers and reconnecting the two,” he said.

How the Dubuque area recovers from the negative economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic tops the list of local business stories to watch in 2021

1 Working toward

an economic rebound

Ron Brisbois, executive director of Grant County (Wis.) Economic Development Corp., expects local industries to see growth as 2021 progresses.

“We started to see some (economic) comebacks in the latter part of 2020,” Brisbois said. “Some of our businesses saw 10% growth as the year ended.”

Dickinson advises patience as the Dubuque area emerges from the economic harm caused by COVID-19.

“I think the first six months of 2021 will see us working ourselves out of the negative impacts of the pandemic,” Dickinson said. “There are opportunities here — nearly all manufacturers are looking for people with certain skill sets.”

Dickinson expects the economy to improve incrementally as the first months of the year unfold. Online learning for children has put a strain on the local workforce, with some parents forced to remain at home, Dickinson said. Affordable and available child care can be another obstacle for working parents.

“The first quarter of 2021 is still going to be damaging to the hospitality industry: bars, restaurants and hotels,” Dickinson said. “Hopefully, there will be some federal or state support for that hard-hit industry.”

Dickinson said Dubuque-area businesses “took a punch” in 2020.

“But we punched back,” he said. “Even without the impacts of the pandemic, there was a lot of give-and-take in 2020.”

Dickinson points to downtown Dubuque’s Roshek Building as an example of the economic ebbs and flows.

“We lost IBM, but Heartland Financial and Cottingham & Butler are building their workforce in anticipation of occupying the Roshek Building,” he said.

Heartland Financial and Cottingham & Butler announced their intentions to expand into the Roshek Building in late 2019. Uncertainty remains over when employees will occupy the building due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Meanwhile, IBM announced in July that it was closing its Client Innovation Center in the building. Its job total in Dubuque soared past 1,300 in 2011 but had fallen to around 300 by the time the company announced its departure.

Dickinson also cites a manufacturing facility on Seippel Road as another example of the ebbs and flows of 2020.

Flexsteel Industries closed the newly built plant, eliminating more than 210 jobs, only for pet-food manufacturer Simmons Pet Food to announce plans to occupy the facility by this upcoming summer and hire about 270 full-time employees within three years.

“Wherever we took a major hit (economically), we have backfilled it with incoming industries or existing businesses,” Dickinson said.

Brisbois expects retail businesses to lag behind manufacturing and other sectors during 2021, at least during the early months of the year.

“The retail sector is completely dependent on the rollout of the vaccine and consumer confidence,” he said. “I expect a tough first quarter. We’re going to lose some of our small businesses — we’re going to see some holes on Main Street — but I do think we will snap right back. People are hungry to get back out there.”

2 Pet food manufacturer set

to begin production in Dubuque

The nation’s sixth-largest pet food manufacturer should begin production this summer at a Dubuque facility.

Simmons Pet Food, based in Arkansas, announced in December plans to purchase the former Flexsteel site on Seippel Road. The firm proposed to invest about $80 million in the facility and create more than 270 full-time jobs. As many as 138 of those workers could be hired by the middle of 2021.

The company creates both dry and wet pet food products, the latter of which would be made in Dubuque.

3 Dubuque airport seeks

rebound from flight suspension

The COVID-19 economic relief package signed into law by President Donald Trump in the waning days of 2020 should help restore commercial flights in 2021 to Dubuque Regional Airport.

The airport and Dubuque Area Chamber of Commerce announced Dec. 22 that American Airlines flights would resume on Wednesday, Jan. 6.

Federal funding allocated to support airline employee and contractor payroll in the federal relief bill will result in American resuming flights through at least March 31.

The schedule initially will feature one flight from Dubuque to Chicago O’Hare International Airport per day and one returning flight that same evening.

In August, American announced a suspension of service into and out of Dubuque beginning Oct. 6. Though flights originally were expected to resume in November, the airline extended the suspension through the remainder of 2020.

This year also could see movement in an effort to add a second commercial destination for local passengers.

Dubuque received $775,000 from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Small Community Air Service Development Program in February. The money could be used to help provide a “minimum revenue guarantee” to potentially improve the chances of launching twice-daily flights between Dubuque and Denver.

4 Racing returns to Iowa

Greyhound Park, for now

The future of greyhound racing in Dubuque — and, thus, Iowa — is uncertain after the upcoming season.

The Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission in October approved a pari-mutuel license for Iowa Greyhound Park, effectively enabling the Dubuque venue to continue operating in 2021.

Regulators also approved year-round simulcasting at the park and a tentative schedule that includes 112 racing days from April to late October.

For the 2020 season, Iowa Greyhound Park reported a total handle of $15.6 million in 2020. That was up more than 55% from the previous year’s total of $9.9 million.

The “handle” refers to the amount wagered on races taking place at Dubuque Greyhound Park, as well as wagers made by those who are physically at the park and betting on races elsewhere.

Several developments cloud the future of the track in Dubuque, which is the last greyhound park in the state.

Q Casino and Hotel will make its final, $500,000 payment to the track in 2021, and a casino in Council Bluffs will make its last yearly payment of $4.6 million in 2022. The Dubuque greyhound park receives the payments as the result of a 2014 settlement agreement that allowed the casinos to cut ties with greyhound racing, and officials have said even the spike in betting this year isn’t enough for the park to be self-sustaining once the subsidies end.

Multiple tracks in Florida also have closed, leaving just a handful operating across the country and prompting many greyhound breeders to leave the business. That closure trend could ultimately reduce the number of dogs available to race.

Jerry Crawford, the attorney for Iowa Greyhound Association, told the Telegraph Herald in August that it was “almost certain” that racing at Iowa Greyhound Park would end in 2021 or 2022, given that the casino subsidies are ending.

5 Traveling and gathering

keys to tourism rebound

Keith Rahe, president and CEO of Travel Dubuque, said he expects the local tourism industry to recover from the struggles caused by the pandemic and social-distancing and other requirements enacted in the wake of COVID-19.

“Speaking with different peers in the industry, we’re very confident that tourism will rebound,” he said.

It’s difficult to predict the near future, however.

“That’s the unknown for everyone in our industry,” he said. “We can’t sit here and say what things are going to look like. One thing we have learned from the pandemic is that we just don’t know.”

However, Rahe said the prospect of Americans receiving vaccinations against COVID-19 in increasing numbers offers hope for increased tourism.

“In the spring, with more people getting vaccinated and the weather getting warmer, families will start to travel again,” he said. “People want to get out – they want to get back to some sort of normalcy. In our industry, you have to be able to travel, and you have to be able to gather, and we haven’t been able to do that (because of the pandemic).”

Rahe said the Dubuque area remains in a strong position as a tourism destination, in part because of its location.

“We’re an easy drive from a lot of major metropolitan areas,” he said.

Among the top tourism draws of the upcoming year could be the rescheduled Major League Baseball game set for Aug. 12 at the Field of Dreams movie site.

Originally set for August 2020, the game between the Chicago White Sox and the New York Yankees was shelved because of the pandemic.

“We’re very excited about that game,” Rahe said. “We’ve been working with Major League Baseball all the way through the process. They are very optimistic that (the 2021 game) will happen.”