Waterloo Profile

April 12, 2012

Waterloo, Iowa, has approximately 68,000 residents (2010 estimate), and is the county seat of Black Hawk County. Waterloo is the largest city by population, in the Waterloo-Cedar Falls metropolitan statistical area (MSA), located between three large economic centers—180 miles from Minneapolis, Minnesota; 265 miles from Chicago, Illinois; and 295 miles from Kansas City, Missouri.

Why was Waterloo, Iowa chosen for the study?

Waterloo, like many other industrial cities nationwide, has experienced a significant decline in its manufacturing employment base over the past 50 years because of employer relocations, closures, and consolidations. In 1960, 38 percent of the city’s workforce was employed in manufacturing compared to only 19.5 percent by 2009.   Our goal with the Industrial Cities Initiative (ICI) is to examine how cities like Waterloo have responded to employment and industry shifts over time.

What was the impact of the 2008 flood in Waterloo?

In June 2008, the Cedar River inundated many parts of the city, streaming into buildings, parking lots, basements, and operational farmland. While the river crest hit an all-time high (over 27 feet, according to local officials), Waterloo experienced less structural damage than Cedar Rapids, which lies downstream. Although many residential and commercial properties were damaged, in the wake of the disaster the city benefited from federal dollars earmarked for repair, reconstruction, and revitalization. In the aftermath, local contractors and construction workers found their services in high demand, which helped to compensate for recessionary pressures (by then) impacting the entire nation.

What is a labor shed and why is it important to the region’s economic development?

A labor shed is an area or region from which an employment center draws its commuting workers. Waterloo, along with Cedar Falls, comprises the Cedar Valley labor shed—drawing workers from within a 50 mile radius of the Ames, Cedar Rapids, and Dubuque MSAs and from a 30-mile radius of the Decorah, Mason City, and Webster City, Iowa labor market areas. Labor shed analyses typically address underemployment, the availability and willingness of current and prospective employees to change jobs, current and desired occupations, wages, hours worked, and distance people are willing to commute to work.

In the Labor Shed Analysis: A Study of Workforce Characteristics (link at the end of blog) released in February 2011, Iowa Workforce Development1 and the Greater Cedar Valley Alliance2 worked to identify where current employees reside and work. The analysis revealed that the Cedar Valley labor shed comprised an estimated 289,873 employable individuals between the ages of 18 and 64, of whom 77.5 percent were employed, 9.2 percent were unemployed, 6.1 percent were home makers, and 7.2 percent were retired. Of those working, 19.9 percent were in the education sector, 17.2 percent in manufacturing, and 13.1 percent in health care and social services.

As the chart indicates, recently, Waterloo has proportionately fewer individuals aged 25–44 than both the state of Iowa and the nation as a whole. This is an important demographic for the city to consider since these workers are more likely to establish themselves in the long term in a given community.  To (continue to) draw this demographic, city leadership needs to consider the ramifications of this group’s educational attainment, skill sets and abilities, and preferences for work–life balance, since its economic and social needs differ from previous generations.  If the city can attract this cohort it will help bolster its business community and public assets.

1. Waterloo, Iowa, and United States percentage of 25-44 year olds

Waterloo, Iowa, and United States percentage of 25-44 year olds since 1970. Waterloo has proportionately fewer individuals aged 25–44 than both the state of Iowa and the nation as a whole.

Other key findings from the same Labor Shed Analysis summarize how the Waterloo economy has shifted its focus since 1960. In the manufacturing category specifically, the average hourly wage in the labor shed is $15.66, placing it behind several other employment sectors: construction ($22.50), government ($20.14), and transportation, communication, and utilities ($19.50). Over 10% of those employed are willing to change jobs or work two or more jobs to support themselves or their families. An estimated 5.2 percent or 2,453 individuals in the local labor shed work inadequate hours (< 35 hours per week), have mismatched skills (their completed years of education are above the number needed for current occupational role), or earn incomes insufficient to keep them above the poverty level. Public transportation in the Cedar Valley is limited, but residents are willing to travel up to 26 miles or more for employment. In fact, 10.6% of Cedar Valley residents are “out commuters,” meaning they live locally and work elsewhere.

What is Cedar Valley TechWorks and how does it impact the local economy?

One of the more interesting efforts in regional entrepreneurship and economic development is the Cedar Valley TechWorks Campus, located in the heart of Waterloo. The campus fosters advancement in biotechnology, serving farmers, researchers, investors, and business owners. Through an initial donation from John Deere, the site opened in 2006 with the goal of making Waterloo a leader in the growing global bio-economy. The manufacturing cluster at TechWorks includes flexible office and work space for new start up businesses and other growing organizations. In addition, the Technology Center works to inform the public and educate the industry through structured research and development, creating a university-like atmosphere for instruction and marketing the benefits of various bio-based products.

What tools does the City of Waterloo have at its disposal to foster economic growth?

The City of Waterloo utilizes several methods to spur economic development through seven designated revitalization areas. The downtown area was named as a revitalization area in the 1970s. Areas surrounding the airport, as well as lands previously occupied by Rath Packing, are also targeted zones for redevelopment (brown fields). The City of Waterloo has utilized Tax Increment Financing, Local Options Taxes, New Market Tax Credits, Historic Tax Credits, and Iowa Finance Authority Tax Credits to foster growth since 1960.

Looking to the future, Waterloo is exploring additional funding sources, both locally and statewide, to foster economic development and support a more regionally based economy.

Note: This blog draws on information from the Greater Cedar Valley Alliance 2011 Laborshed Analysis and Cedar Valley Techworks.


1 Iowa Workforce Development is a state-sponsored agency that contributes to the economic security of Iowa’s workers, businesses, and communities through a comprehensive system of employment services, education, and regulation of health, safety, and employment laws.

2  The Greater Cedar Valley Alliance’s mission is to increase economic vitality and job creation in the Cedar Valley of Iowa to allow it to compete successfully in the global marketplace for business investment and talent.

The views expressed in this post are our own and do not reflect those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago or the Federal Reserve System.


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