Vibrant Rural Communities: Clinton, Iowa

Posted on: July 30th, 2012 by Kathy Nothstine

This case study was researched and written by Parrish Bergquist, NADO Research Foundation Graduate Fellow.

In 1996, the City of Clinton, Iowa (http://www NULL.ci NULL.clinton NULL.ia NULL.us/), set out to improve a stretch of US Highway 30 that runs through the heart of town. The road forms a segment of historic Lincoln Highway— dedicated in 1913 (http://www NULL.fhwa NULL.dot NULL.gov/infrastructure/lincoln NULL.cfm) as one of the nation’s first transcontinental highways. It also serves as an entryway to Clinton and the State of Iowa. As such, city officials wanted to reconstruct the road in a way that meshed with the local context. With the cooperation of several State and Federal agencies, the community created a corridor that respects existing development, presents a welcoming gateway to the community, and sustains adjacent neighborhoods’ economic vitality.

Before the Liberty Square corridor revitalization project, many buildings had fallen into disrepair or stood vacant. Industrial facilities like an Archer Daniels Midland plant (top) and an abandoned Chicago and Northwestern Railroad car maintenance shop (bottom left, highlighted bottom right) bordered residential areas, posing health threats to residents. Photo: HR Green, Inc.

The corridor’s history informed the choice of improvement strategies. At the time, “incompatible land uses” comingled in the 220 acres of land skirting the 1.77-mile stretch of highway (http://clintonlibertysquare NULL.com/index NULL.php?cmd=about). Contamination from former and current industrial facilities (http://www NULL.adm NULL.com/en-US/products/ADMLogistics/terminal_services/Pages/Clinton NULL.aspx)—including a major shipping and storage operation for agricultural products —posed health threats to residents. Many buildings had not undergone renovation since their construction in the early 20th century. Buildings sat close to the edge of the road, over which 14,000-18,000 cars passed every day. The corridor showed visitors and residents such a bleak representation of the community that, according to project consultant Gil Janes, “When the hospital or business community was trying to recruit doctors and professionals, they would avoid taking them down this corridor. It didn’t present the kind of image they wanted to present.”

Improving the highway’s capacity and safety as it existed in 1996—with four travel lanes and a center turn lane—would have required widening the off-street rights of way and increasing building setbacks. This would have drastically reduced space available for businesses alongside the roadway. Seeking to improve rather than degrade the area’s vitality, the project team chose a different solution. The Iowa Department of Transportation (IDOT) would divide the highway into two one-way segments with one block between them. The intervening space would be designated for commercial development.

The City of Clinton assumed responsibility for guiding the redevelopment of the intervening blocks, which contained 190 occupied residences and businesses alongside former industrial sites, vacant buildings, and dilapidated structures. The City and IDOT acquired blighted properties in the designated area, which became known as Liberty Square, and IDOT took charge of relocating residents and businesses according to State requirements. Incorporating extensive public input, the City undertook a planning process addressing market conditions, land use, zoning, and design standards for redevelopment. Emerging from this process, a new overlay district set design requirements (http://clintonlibertysquare NULL.com/include/Liberty%20Square%20Comprehensive%20Plan NULL.pdf) to ensure that new development would present a positive aesthetic. The overlay district also limited land uses to professional and retail. Eliminating residential and industrial uses creates a buffer between the industrial area to the south of Liberty Square and a primarily residential zone to the north.

The planning team undertook extensive brownfield assessment and cleanup before designating the allowable uses. To perform these activities, the City received $1.5 million in brownfield assessment and remediation funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (http://www NULL.epa NULL.gov/) (EPA). The City used this funding to conduct assessments and clean up 4.4 acres of former industrial property. The City also leveraged $2.34 million in low-interest loans from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (http://portal NULL.hud NULL.gov/hudportal/HUD) (HUD) and $675,000 from Iowa’s Department of Economic Development (http://www NULL.iowaeconomicdevelopment NULL.com/), for property acquisition and cleanup (more details about funding sources are here (http://www NULL.clintonlibertysquare NULL.com/index NULL.php?cmd=funding)). Janes observed that these funds were critical to conducting the due diligence required for redevelopment: “But for these external funding sources, [assessment and cleanup] would have been a monumental undertaking. We were very fortunate to have the support of the EPA and the State of Iowa.”

The Liberty Square overlay district (bottom left) limits land uses to commercial and industrial, creating a buffer between residential areas and industrial facilities. The overlay district’s design requirements ensure that future investment helps create a welcoming entryway to Clinton and to Iowa. The project partners installed streetscape and recreational improvements to the Liberty Square area (top). Photos: HR Green, Inc.

When highway construction is completed (anticipated for spring of 2013) IDOT will transfer to the City the properties it acquired in Liberty Square. At that point, private developers may purchase parcels. To incentivize investment, Clinton County has designated Liberty Square as an Enterprise Zone, and the City of Clinton has made properties eligible for its Urban Revitalization Program (http://www NULL.clintonia NULL.com/dpeconomicincent NULL.html). The Urban Revitalization Program provides three-year, 50% property tax abatement on property improvements. The City hopes that these incentives will encourage businesses to relocate to the Liberty Square area. While properties have not gone up for sale yet, former Clinton staff planner Stephen Prideaux recalls fielding many calls from developers interested in investing in Liberty Square.

Partnerships have played a key role in Liberty Square’s redevelopment, as indicated by the myriad of funding sources (http://www NULL.clintonlibertysquare NULL.com/index NULL.php?cmd=funding) that the City has tapped. IDOT and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), via a 2012 TIGER Grant award (http://www NULL.dot NULL.gov/tiger/fy2012tiger NULL.pdf), became important partners in the highway reconstruction, and the East Central Intergovernmental Association (http://www NULL.ecia NULL.org/) (ECIA) administered funds and contributed to the planning process. The EPA and HUD provided funding and technical assistance in brownfield remediation. Other partners included the City of Clinton, Iowa Department of Economic Development, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Altogether, the State of Iowa contributed $22 million and the Federal Government contributed $26 million to the $57.7 million project.

Prideaux remarks that the Liberty Square project has helped bring about “an obvious transformation from a perspective of Clinton, Iowa, as tired, blighted, dirty, run-down to now one of hope and possibility.” As the highway reconstruction project nears conclusion, the City has opened for investment an area that had been neglected for decades. Without State and Federal partners, this reclamation may not have been possible.

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This is part of the NADO Research Foundation’s Vibrant Rural Communities series of case studies, which describes how rural regions and small towns across the country are growing local and regional economies and creating stronger communities. This series shows how communities can leverage a wide range of tools and resources to build on their assets, protect their resources, and make strategic investments that offer long-term benefits.

This project is based in part upon work supported by the Federal Highway Administration under Agreement No. DTFH61-10-C-00047. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of FHWA or the NADO Research Foundation.
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