Accentuate the Incremental Print
News/Features - Local News
Wednesday, 28 February 2007 02:28

As much progress as each of the Quad Cities has made toward a vibrant downtown, it seems slower than anticipated or promised.

John Deere Commons is a jewel for Moline, for example, but the city still struggles with that success jumping the train tracks into "old" downtown. The District of Rock Island is the envy of the other Quad Cities, but it's reached an age when it needs to reinvent itself. In Davenport, River Renaissance has given the community anchors such as the Figge Art Museum, but there doesn't seem to be much spin-off business development.

Several Quad Cities have discovered the appeal of downtown housing, but that's just one piece of the puzzle. We've built the amenities and we're building the central-city housing. Now we're waiting for businesses to rediscover our downtowns, and growth overall appears sluggish.

Are the amenity-based models we used bad? Do we need to re-think our development strategies? Or are we merely impatient?

Those are important questions to answer, but just as critical is thinking of new strategies. What if each of the several thousand businesses in the Quad Cities was able to add one job every other year? The local economy would flourish.

One barrier is that many of our economic-development tools - such as Tax Increment Financing - are geared toward capital projects. Another barrier is that often as a community we spend too much energy chasing big projects instead of looking inward.

So what sort of incentive could we create for existing businesses that add employees or grow?

The Reader e-mailed more than two dozen business and community leaders from the Quad Cities, asking: "What can we as a community do to help local businesses grow? ... What incentives or programs could we create that would help boost that one-employee-at-a-time growth? And what could we do to try to drive that growth to our downtowns?"

Although we were disappointed at the number of responses, this is the beginning of the conversation, not the end.

Here are the responses we received, edited for length. For the full text of all the responses, visit our Web site (http://www.rcreader.com).

And please add your own ideas in the comments of the article.

Mike Freemire

Mayor, Bettendorf

First off I don't think we do look for the big fix; Bettendorf has targeted the nine "corridors of opportunity." We are working on all of them all the time. Projects take years to develop, such as the former Eagles building. We have always said we would rather have a hundred little companies, rather than one big one. Risks are much lower with this type of approach.

Business retention has been selected for several years as one of our top priorities. We have placed funds in the CIP for a revolving loan fund to assist businesses with the I-74 Bridge project.

TIF is used to help local businesses expand just as it does with attracting businesses from out of town. It should be said that not all businesses need or should get incentives. Conversely, no one has ever been turned away if they needed our help. Sometimes our role is creating a dynamic economy which encourages businesses to expand.

 

Greg Champagne

Community and Economic Development Director, City of Rock Island

I believe the approach of "growing your own" has been and continues to be a valuable and proven strategy for generating new jobs in an economy. Much of the literature and economic development studies support the fact that existing companies produce most new jobs.

 

As an example, for almost twenty-five years the City of Rock Island has operated a low interest loan program which has, for the most part, made loans to local companies who are either starting or expanding. In fact, the program requires the creation of one full-time job for each $10,000 borrowed. Over $8 million in loans has helped generate some 3,500 new jobs in Rock Island, again with the vast majority of the loans going to existing businesses. So, continuing the use of low interest and higher risk loan programs is one tactic to help support local job creation and economic growth.

 

Another strategy is simply talking with local businesses to better identify their needs. For many years the area cities, Chambers of Commerce and the Quad City Development Group have conducted face-to-face interviews with local companies. The information gleaned from these meetings has been important in helping to identify issues, problems and program gaps that are of concern to local companies. In our city, we try to complete between 30 and 50 interviews per year. While the end result may be as simple as making sure a pothole gets patched or as complex as helping a business to find a new site, the point is that building a working relationship with businesses helps to better understand their operating environment and may help result in a healthier business climate leading to expansion, additional jobs and investment.

 

Talking with business as an expansion strategy also goes beyond surveys and should involve ways to make the business community a partner in development. Organizations like Renaissance Rock Island have been extremely important in the city's development efforts. Renaissance, and its affiliated organizations (Development Association of Rock Island, GROWTH and the District), have provided guidance, financial support and critical feedback on a range of activities that have supported local business growth. For example, we recently completed a strategic plan for the downtown which was a joint effort between the city and Renaissance. A number of ideas to spur new business activity are identified from creating an arts incubator to developing a data base of available space in downtown properties. Involving the business community in this process provides assurance that an investment on their part will makes sense. We also recently created the Sustainable Development Assessment Team (SDAT) which is an advisory group intended to provide free advice to businesses regarding sustainable construction and operating techniques.

 

Helping business to grow often also involves helping them find qualified workers. To this end, the local community colleges and other educational institutions routinely work to create a pool of skilled workers to meet job demand. I recently learned of a logistics training program being jointly developed by community colleges on both sides of the river that will meet a need local businesses have in the areas of materials handling, warehousing, distribution and product movement. This program doesn't involve a capital expenditure on the part of the business but can provide something very valuable...qualified, trained employees.

 

In conclusion, I don't think there is any one incentive or program that will work for all businesses to help them to grow one employee at a time. Rather, helping to set the stage for growth through a variety of programs, helping to create a supportive operating environment and communicating with the business community to best determine what they need seems to me to be some good long term strategies for creating jobs in the Quad Cities.

 

Scott Tunnicliff

President and CEO, Bettendorf Chamber of Commerce

 

(1) Develop high-speed passenger rail between Chicago and QC. It makes no difference where it is located in the QC, as long as it ties the area to a major economic engine like Chicago. People were dismissive of this just a few years ago, but now it is an idea whose time has come. Making accessibility better to the 8 million people in Chicago and the collar counties would position us as a western suburb, and encourage a lot more investors to examine the area.

 

(2) Encourage private sector investment in Early Childhood Development programs. Having widespread access to affordable quality childhood development programs for children age 0-5 would be a major incentive for young people with children or who are planning to have families. It is a huge issue for that age group, and the ancillary benefit would be multiple: You'd be preparing a whole generation to be ready for education and eventually help them take their place as productive citizens and leaders; you'd relieve teachers of the stress in elementary school of dealing with children who are to some degree emotionally or socially unready for the atmosphere of a structured learning environment; ultimately, this woul pay off with a generation substantively more able to lead in the building of a community.

 

(3) Pursue planning of projects with a practical eye toward sustainability of the operations. For projects large or small, build in realistic expectations so that bricks and mortar do not go up and are left to blow in the wind with no funds for operations.

 

(4) Concentrate on Redevelopment, not New Development. Look to the private sector and public sector for collaborative means of rebuilding neighborhoods, attracting residential components to older areas. Retail will only come to areas where access to a strong customer base exists. Redevelopment strategies aimed at attracting investment help ensure that areas will not become neglected.

 

(5) Embrace the Rock Island Arsenal as a vital part of our community. Learn about its history, its present function, and welcome the people who come to work on it and for it. If the employees have a positive view of our communities, great things can result.

 

(6) Invest in public and private education systems. Strong school systems that can point to real achievement make the most compelling case for attracting balanced investment. Site consultants looking for business locations may not insist on good schools, but the people they recruit will. Support for schools means more than hurling money at them. Their must be an accounting for it, complete with measurable goals and benchmarks for achievement.

 

(7) Engage citizenry in learning how government works, and encourage their meaningful participation in it. Civics course work can benefit people of all ages, especially since it has been diminished in the curriculums over the past decades.

 

(8) Embrace the Mississippi river for what it is - a recreational amenity and a working business corridor. It is what makes our area unique, but without its commercial function, none of our families would have settled here.

 

(9) Finally, recognize that while the Quad cities is indeed one metro market, each of its communities possess a distinctive character. View that and market that as an asset, not a liability. A choir in tune, each singing its separate part, is far more appealing than one voice forced to hold one note.

 

Tara Barney

Senior Vice President, DavenportOne

 

DavenportOne believes our community can best succeed by growing employment one, two, and ten good jobs at a time. We work to create a thriving and growing business community; one that attracts more people, fuels more jobs and creates more customers who will make more investment in our local economy. We are actively engaged every day with existing local businesses in every part of the community. We provide technical assistance to growing companies to help them with expansion logistics, market research, and access to databases and industry trends. Other mature businesses are looking for ways to diversify their product lines or customer bases. We connect them with public and private services and programs that can provide tools to assist them with access to new markets, processes or products.

 

Simply put, we focus on the importance of each existing business and its particular needs. Most are small with fewer than 50 employees. What programs are in demand?

 

Information-access to research, focus groups, and industry trends that help identify potential customers,

 

Removing barriers-our units of government are eager to improve service levels and become better partners with business. One stop locations for easy and accessible permits, business regulations and licenses help.

 

Public policies that encourage adaptive re-use of our older and traditional commercial areas save resources for all. Zoning and other regulations can be modified to encourage businesses to locate downtown and in the more established areas of our communities.

 

More funding of flexible and locally -managed loan programs. Good programs exist in the Quad Cities, but are essentially depleted of funds to loan. Capital, especially working capitol is hard to find and for small businesses is often the difference-maker in creating that one extra job. Replenish the good programs that are working.

 

A lively downtown business district is key to business growth and workforce attraction for companies across Davenport and enhances the quality of life for all Quad-City residents. Our downtowns are becoming the location of choice for businesses that value interaction and access; to cultural institutions, entertainment, to local government, to employees and residents, and to each other. Creative businesses are clustering in our region's downtown so they can share customers and ideas.

 

Davenport now treats parking management as part of its economic development program. By creating parking choices, offering programs tailored to business and customer needs, Davenport has made great strides in making Downtown a location of choice.

 

Design guidelines can encourage pedestrian-friendly environments that attract businesses downtown. These programs should allow more flexible signage, encourage outdoor dining and gatherings, and generally, create urban neighborhoods.

 

Specialized work environments are key: offices, homes, and a wide choice of places that business people can live and work, belong in downtown. The NewVenture Center Suite of Suites offers one and two person businesses an incubator environment where they will find a turnkey and flexible space to work and interact with other growth businesses and entrepreneurs.

Many of the new residential choices in downtown are designed as live-work environment. More are needed. State Historic Tax Credits can leverage private investment and essentially fund themselves through this investment. Our Iowa legislative leaders can make this incentive available for Iowa downtowns.

 

TIF, Tax Increment Financing can actually be an effective tool in driving small business into downtown. True, it has generally been used for big projects, but it could also be styled to attract small businesses to an area if, for example, a district-wide TIF were used to incent first-floor retail businesses. The proposed Market District area of downtown Davenport would be a great location for this type of program.

 

The Downtown Partnership focuses on our ever-growing Davenport city center. It concentrates on building a critical mass of employees, residents and visitors in the central business district. Retaining loyal downtown businesses, recruiting additional businesses, providing housing options and hosting special events and festivals are strategies to build the downtown market.

 

Above all, our community must take full advantage of the greatest asset we have, that which differentiates our region from others, our incomparable access to the Mississippi River. As we focus our development priorities to take advantage of the opportunity that RiverVision offers, we will create a unique quality of life. We can build downtowns and urban neighborhood business areas that are more green, more environmentally sustainable, and more connected. Ultimately, we can open the way to business growth one job at a time.