From COVID-19 impacts to moves by major employers, top 10 local business stories of 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic buffeted the local business community in 2020.

It also was a year that saw two major employers leave Dubuque while a new one announced plans to come to the city, hospitals unveil new services while curtailing others and the continuing development of a revitalized area.

Here are the Top 10 local business stories of 2020, as chosen by the Telegraph Herald’s editorial staff.

1. COVID-related shutdowns

hit area businesses

Local restaurants and bars were among the first to limit their capacities or even close their doors in mid-March, when the coronavirus pandemic began to spread across the region.

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers ordered a ban on gatherings of more than 50 people on March 16, a move that forced bars and restaurants to limit their capacity. Bars and restaurants in Iowa and Illinois soon faced similar restrictions as COVID-19 spread.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds declared a “public health disaster emergency” on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, and ordered the closure of the state’s bars and dine-in services at restaurants in a bid to slow the spread of COVID-19. Carry-out, curbside and drive-thru food service were allowed.

That declaration also closed all fitness centers, theaters, casinos and gaming facilities.

Reynolds extended the declaration later in March, expanding the list of closures to include most types of retail stores.

Selected types of businesses were reopened in a piecemeal style throughout the summer, although Dubuque County was included in a region of northeast Iowa particularly hard-hit by the virus that experienced continued business restrictions when Reynolds eased mandated limits and closures on other parts of the state in the summer.

Various business restrictions re-emerged in the fall, and Jo Daviess County, Ill., was among the regions in which restaurants and bars still were the subject of governor’s orders, though many businesses there were ignoring them.

2. Longtime Dubuque business ends local manufacturing

A long-established local employer announced in April that it would shut down its Dubuque manufacturing operations.

The decision by Flexsteel Industries Inc. resulted in the loss of more than 200 jobs and ended an 84-year manufacturing presence in Dubuque.

The announcement came three years after Flexsteel vowed to remain in Dubuque and invest $28 million to construct a new manufacturing facility on Seippel Road to replace an aging plant on Jackson Street. Construction of the Seippel Road facility was supported by more than $10 million in local and state financial incentives.

Flexsteel’s corporate headquarters remains at 385 Bell St. The company still employs 130 workers in Dubuque.

3. Pet food manufacturer

announces local plans

But the Flexsteel plant won’t sit empty for long.

The nation’s sixth-largest pet food manufacturer announced plans in December to purchase it as it expands its operations.

Simmons Pet Food, based in Arkansas, proposed to invest about $80 million in the Dubuque facility and create more than 270 full-time jobs. The company proposes hiring 138 of those workers by the middle of 2021 and increasing that total during the next three years.

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


Tech giant leaves Dubuque after 11 years

IBM informed local employees in July that the company would close its Dubuque Client Innovation Center in the Roshek Building by November.

The announcement came 11 years after the tech giant’s much-heralded arrival in Dubuque.

Spokesman Fred McNeese said the decision was part of IBM’s “continued review of the most efficient ways to source products and services.”

IBM had announced its plans to open a service center in Dubuque in January 2009.

The project was supported by a $52 million incentives package from state and local governmental entities. Many of these incentives were contingent upon the creation of 1,300 jobs, a threshold that IBM surpassed in late 2011.

However, the job totals tumbled in the following years, as the headcount dipped below 1,000 in 2015 and fell to less than 500 in 2017.

By the time IBM announced its plans to leave, Greater Dubuque Development Corp. estimated the number of current employees at about 340.

5. Dubuque hospitals

take aim at cancer

MercyOne Dubuque Medical Center and UnityPoint Health-Finley Hospital spent the year on the frontlines of the battle against COVID-19. That didn’t mean shifting focus from a longstanding potentially fatal disease.

Mercy completed the construction of a $25 million cancer center in June, opening the two-story, 40,000-square-foot facility that offered radiation oncology and medical oncology under one roof — a first in Dubuque up to that time.

Those two treatments were combined under a roof at Finley by Sept. 28, when the hospital unveiled its new Integrated Cancer Center after two years of planning. The integrated center included the relocation of Grand River Medical Group’s medical oncology clinic to Finley’s Wendt Regional Cancer Center following a $2.2 million renovation.

6. Jobless claims soar

as pandemic hits

Shutdown orders related to COVID-19 dealt major blows to local businesses and their employees — an impact illustrated by a surge of jobless claims as the pandemic tightened its grip.

The surge came suddenly: In the week that ended on March 14, 97 Dubuque County residents had filed new unemployment claims. By the end of the following week, that figure had increased twelvefold, to 1,273 claims.

An additional 2,718 new claims were filed during the week that ended April 4, and a University of Northern Iowa report released during the third week of April indicated that more than 85% of Dubuque County businesses had been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and 60% had been forced to implement some form of employee restrictions.

Local officials estimated that Dubuque County’s unemployment rate had soared to nearly 21% by the end of April.

Jobless claims began to ebb as spring turned to summer and coronavirus-related restrictions eased somewhat. Only 204 new unemployment claims were filed by Dubuque County in the week that ended May 30.

The job situation had improved by fall, and continuous jobless claims in Dubuque County fell to 1,247 in the week ending Nov. 7, the lowest total since March 21.

7. Local hospitals navigate COVID-19 hardships

The coronavirus pandemic’s impact on local health care showed up in employment figures. The health care sector had the second-highest number of jobless claims in Dubuque County, with 2,743, from the third week of March to mid-November.

Hospitals experienced dramatic declines in patient volumes because elective procedures were canceled or postponed due to the increasing demands of treating COVID-19 patients. The temporary elimination of such elective procedures, which took effect in mid-March, deprived hospitals of income they annually rely upon while operating on traditionally thin profit margins.

Hospitals also faced the need to purchase additional personal protective equipment, including but not limited to masks and gowns, which represented unexpected expenditures for hospitals.

Meanwhile, the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 surged in November, prompting local medical officials to plead with the community for help in reversing the then-worsening trend.

Health care leaders also talked about the enormous toll the pandemic was taking on their staffs, from the stress of dealing with the sick to staff members themselves being exposed to and contracting the virus.

8. Dubuque-area Airport

experiences ups, downs

It was an up-and-down year for Dubuque Regional Airport.

The facility received a boost in February, with the award of $775,000 from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Small Community Air Service Development Program.

The money could be used to help provide a “minimum revenue guarantee” that could improve the chances of initiating twice-daily flight service from Dubuque to Denver, adding a second hub to local fliers’ options.

But before long, COVID-19 began to spread around the country, and air passenger numbers dramatically declined.

Dubuque enplanements, or passengers, this April were down about 97% from the previous year in April, and American Airlines reduced its number of daily flights from Dubuque that month from three to two. That dropped to one flight per day four days per week in May and one flight per day five days per week in June.

In August, the airline announced a suspension of flights in and out of Dubuque would begin Oct. 6. Although flights originally were expected to resume in the first week of November, the suspension eventually was extended through the end of the year.

Officials recently announced that commercial flights into and out of Dubuque will resume on Jan. 6.

9. Dubuque firms announce related relocations

Two Dubuque firms announced related moves to be completed early in 2021.

Slumberland Furniture announced in August that it will relocate from its current location at 4390 Dodge St. to a larger space within the Plaza 20 Shopping Center in the first quarter of 2021. Plaza 20 President Michael Kahle confirmed that the firm will occupy the 55,000-square-foot space in the former Kmart building, filling the vacant area between Joann fabric store and the Dubuque Veterans Affairs Outpatient Clinic.

In November, Widmeier Flooring announced intentions to move from its current location, 5205 Pennsylvania Ave., to Slumberland’s soon-to-be-vacated Dodge Street home in March.

10. Millwork District growth continues

Growth continued this year in Dubuque’s Millwork District.

Dupaco Community Credit Union continued to progress on its $37 million restoration effort to create an operations center at the corner of East 10th and Jackson streets. The project in a historic structure known as the “Voices” building will provide space for 175 Dupaco employees and will open soon.

Also in October, a Minnesota-based development group announced plans to create a 103-room boutique hotel in the Novelty Iron Works building, 333 E. 10th St., and Gary Dolphin’s Iron Bar, named for the Dubuque County native and Iowa Hawkeyes radio broadcaster, opened in the Novelty Iron Works building.