Kathy and Virl Banowetz dug a hand-sized portion of dirt from the ground, careful not to lose their footing on the wet grass and mud near the site of their future new home at Bear River Cottages. 

The Banowetzes, along with fellow new Bear River homeowners Teresa Hosch of Maquoketa and Dubuque/Jackson County Habitat for Humanity, broke ground on the new Maquoketa pocket neighborhood Friday. 

They shoveled clods of grass and dirt next to representatives from East Central Intergovernmental Association, the city of Maquoketa, and various other entities that have been working for about a decade to bring “a community within a community” to Eastern Iowa, according to ECIA Executive Director Kelley Deutmeyer.

The rain broke just long enough for the hourlong groundbreaking ceremony Friday at Creslane Drive and German Street, where the 10-house Bear River Cottages community will be constructed. About 60 people attended the event, with large mounds of dirt and earthmoving equipment setting the backdrop for the ceremony. 

The pocket neighborhood will feature 10 new 1,064-square-foot homes priced at less than $150,000 each. The houses will be built around a landscaped common area where neighbors live in a community setting with amenities such as rain and community gardens and a gazebo for picnic and outdoor grilling.

Deutmeyer called the official groundbreaking “an incredible, exciting day.” Other speakers echoed that sentiment.

“It’s a baby I’ve been trying to deliver for 10 years,” she told those assembled.

Deutmeyer said the vision for the pocket neighborhood began in 2009 when she started researching affordable homes and sustainable construction. By 2015, ECIA had $12,000 in seed money from grants and donations as well as backing from some Maquoketa and Jackson County officials to locate the neighborhood here.

That same year, a study showed that Maquoketa would need at least 300 single-family, workforce-affordable homes by 2025, Deutmeyer said.

ECIA received a $200,000 federal loan grant for the project. The county sold the 2.5-acre parcel to ECIA.

The city agreed to install water, sewer and street infrastructure to the site, then borrowed $500,000 to honor that commitment to East Central Development Corp., a private, non-profit organization leading the housing project. That money will be repaid through reimbursement from tax-increment financing.

Maquoketa State Bank provided financing for construction loans and, through a partnership with the Iowa Finance Authority, will offer below-market interest rates on the project.

Contractor Balliu Construction of Maquoketa has been leveling the vacant property.

The entire project will cost about $2.4 million.

Maquoketa Mayor Don Schwenker praised the project, saying the city has gone through a 10- to 15-year “journey” with the Vision 2020 project and the downtown fire in 2008. He said Maquoketa is working to “rebrand ourselves and pick ourselves up.” 

“It’s going to be a wonderful project,” said county Supervisor Jack Willey, although he noted what he called Deutmeyer’s one big mistake.

“Why aren’t they naming the street Kelley Lane?” he asked, drawing laughter from the crowd.

“We’ll have all 10 houses done by 2021,” Willey predicted, then hugged Deutmeyer.

Nic Hockenberry, executive director of the Jackson County Economic Alliance, said he was excited about how the pocket neighborhood might benefit the local economy and the region. He called the pocket neighborhood “an example we might set for the state for workforce housing. This can be a great example of how it takes a great partner, a great team” to make it a success.

As the first Bear River buyer, Hosch said she can’t wait to begin construction.

“I was hooked on this project from the beginning,” said Hosch, who heard about the project during the meetings she covers as the news director at KMAQ. “I am excited to be here today. I just want to see it get going.”

Hosch’s home might be done before Christmas, officials told her.

Rachel Dilling of the Habitat for Humanity organization said officials have selected the family who will live there, although paperwork must to be completed before it is official.

“Thank you for taking that leap of faith with us,” Deutmeyer told the Bear River homeowners.

Iowa Finance Authority board member Darlys Baum summed up the pocket neighborhood project, saying everyone needs “a place to belong” and Bear River Cottages can be that place.