City Profile: Waterloo, Iowa

Geographical Situation

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.

Historical Overview

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.

City Character

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 the downtown area.

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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