Diamond Jo Casino
How a riverboat casino and a museum helped revive a depressed Iowa town.
In the 1980s, a John Deere plant shuttered in Dubuque. Unemployment peaked at 23 percent. An inefficient ped-mall, built in the name of urban renewal, choked off traffic from a once-charming downtown. And the harbor leading to the city’s greatest resource—the roaring Mississippi River—was an ever-growing toxic dump, dotted by a foundry and gravel and logging companies.
Fast-forward 25 years: Dubuque is a sweet, pre–Civil War metropolis on the Iowa-Illinois-Wisconsin border that lacks the mawkishness of its more popular tourism rival, Galena. To the southwest of the Mississippi, Victorian houses dot limestone bluffs, and for $1, you can take an old elevator car to the top. Below sit towering churches, one clad in all Tiffany windows; the newly restored grand Hotel Julian, supposedly once owned by Al Capone; and in the distance, the banks of the river—alive with a casino, a ten-acre museum and new construction.
Back in 1991, the riverbanks held only two small attractions: a river museum and the Mississippi Casino Belle. Tight riverboat gambling rules allowed bets in increments of $5 or smaller and losses of no more than $200. Its eccentric owners, caterers Bob and Ruth Kehl, served their “famous prime rib” as they cast off on the Mississippi. The Kehls saw business quickly flounder as Illinois, with laxer laws, introduced riverboat gambling.
Tim Conlon, a third-generation owner of Conlon Construction Company, remembers how at that time, blue-collar workers fled Dubuque. But other citizens banded together. “There are a lot of companies over 100, 150 years old,” Conlon says. “Philanthropy is really strong here.”
They got to thinking that cleaning the riverfront and attracting visitors to its shores would be key. One newspaper owner, upon his death, bequeathed $1.8 million to expand the river museum.
The grant fueled others to rally around their cause. A new Vision Iowa grant totalling $40 million came their way. Funding sources plunked down money if, in turn, other projects were pursued: Clean up the harbor’s toxic waste, build a hotel, construct a conference center, mount exhibits on riverboat commerce, improve economic impact.
Conlon, whose family business worked on the riverfront revitalization, attributes success to partnerships among the public, the city and private businesses: “The way it works, the city sits down with developers and [they] work together. It’s unusual.”
In 2003, the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium opened, stocking its riverfront building with marine animals and employing working scientists to undertake species conservation. After the casino spearheaded another fund-raising effort, offering $3 million in cash and $5 million for a building and raising about $190 million more for harbor development, the museum added a second building in 2010 and will soon open outdoor animal exhibits.
Peninsula Gaming bought the casino, retired its riverboat and reopened the on-land Diamond Jo Casino in 2008. Standard slots and table games were joined by a bowling alley with winter PBA tournaments—a big tourist draw after climate change scourged nearby ski resorts. An intimate theater leaves patrons no farther than 80 feet from big-name rock bands, and the white-tablecloth restaurant Woodfire Grille employs its own sommelier.
While some of the riverfront revitalization fell through—Conlon says plans for housing sputtered out due to lack of demand—the last few years brought a boon. IBM moved in and uses the city as a pilot for Smarter Planet, a way of tracking energy consumption. But maybe more important, some locals say, IBM ushered in a cache of city-savvy workers who help sustain historic Main Street’s restaurants, stores and cafés, many of which went from boarded-up to rehabbed and green. In mid-May, Boyd Gaming Corporation announced a deal to buy Peninsula for $1.45 billion.
Next to the casino, Conlon Construction is building a handsome office for Flex Seal. It’s a rare intersection of corporations, casino, museum and river—and history: A 120-foot tower, built in 1856 and used to make musket shot, sits mid-harbor. A symbol that while the city grows, it doesn’t like to leave the past too far behind.
Diamond Jo Casino is a 175-mile drive from Chicago. It’s located at 301 Bell Street, Dubuque, Iowa.