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The Man Behind Rock Island’s Renaissance PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Local News
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Tuesday, 18 October 2005 18:00
Two weeks ago, an elderly woman walked up to where Dan Carmody was sitting in the 3rd & 22 sports bar in Rock Island. “Hi, honey,” he said to the woman. “You traitor,” she responded. She was kidding, of course, but the greeting isn’t surprising. After 18 years heading private economic-development efforts in Rock Island through the Development Association of Rock Island (DARI) and other organizations now under the umbrella of Renaissance Rock Island, Carmody is leaving the Quad Cities to take a similar role in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Carmody noted that most people in the field of private economic development last four or five years in a job. “After 18 years, new ideas are hard to come by,” he said. Still, a great many people in Rock Island and the Quad Cities have grown to feel entitled to Dan Carmody.

In typical fashion, he’s even turned his own going-away party into a larger concern. A $50-per-person roast on Tuesday, October 25, at Circa ’21 will also serve as a fundraiser for Renaissance Rock Island, with anonymous donors contributing $100 for each ticket sold. The event will also serve as the organization’s Hard Hat awards ceremony. (For more information, call 309-786-6311.)

Jennifer Fowler, the director of community marketing for Renaissance Rock Island, said this demonstrates how Carmody is “a little bit renegade” – that even a simple farewell party can have a larger purpose.

The event has essentially become the kickoff to a $2-million capital campaign that will help Renaissance Rock Island craft its post-Carmody identity. “What direction do we want to go now?” Fowler asked.

A Visionary

When Carmody started in the economic-development business in 1988, he entered an environment in which cooperation was rare. Both DARI and the city had studied the downtown, and their findings illustrated their different paths. One study suggested tearing down Circa ’21 for Fort Armstrong parking, while the other recommended tearing down Fort Armstrong for Circa parking.

Renaissance Rock Island now works closely with the City of Rock Island, to the extent that Carmody’s organizations at times appear to be one with municipal government – for better or for worse.

In Carmody’s tenure, DARI has grown from 14 members in 1988 to more than 70 members now. The staff for all components of Renaissance Rock Island has ballooned from “one and a quarter” when Carmody started, he said, to 14 today. Rock Island Economic Growth Corporation was “a junior Quad City Development Group,” Carmody said, that shifted to central-city housing – from rehab projects to single-family condos and townhomes to mixed-income rental properties. The District didn’t even exist when Carmody began.

And the District might still not exist without Carmody. He came to DARI after starting and owning RIBCO, so it’s little surprise that one of his major accomplishments was branding Rock Island as the place for nightlife in the Quad Cities and building a slate of summer festivals to reinforce that idea.

Fowler said she doesn’t think the District (which was established in 1992) would have been created without Carmody. She related a story from before her time that from conception to execution, the inaugural District festival – Ya Maka My Weekend – took only six weeks.

“He’s such a visionary,” said Fowler, who joined the Renaissance Rock Island staff in 1997. “He’s always thinking big picture.”

Fowler also said downtown housing was something that probably wouldn’t have happened without Carmody.

Mike Thoms, president of the DARI board, agreed that Carmody was the driving force behind downtown-housing efforts and the District. He added that Carmody was also willing to take risks with companies, such as eServ; Carmody’s approach, Thoms said, was “Let’s give them cheap if not free space.”

That is a risky philosophy, Thoms conceded. “Renaissance has gotten burned,” he said. “You have some wins and some losses.” Carmody “took that risk ... for the good of the community.” In the case of eServ, the gamble paid off. The product-engingeering company now owns its building on Blackhawk Road.

Life Without Dan

Carmody’s last day will be November 1, and Renaissance Rock Island leaders expect to have his replacement installed in the first quarter of 2006. Of course, Carmody’s departure leaves a big hole in Rock Island’s economic-development organizations, and those groups are conducting a national search, with advertising for the position starting in the last week.

The board understands that it can’t have somebody who’s both visionary and a good administrator. The day-to-day operations are going to shift to the individual organizations, with the Renaissance Rock Island president playing the “cheerleader” role, Thoms said.

“We do feel that a visionary person is important,” Fowler said. “We’ve used the term ‘coach’ in the office.”

Thoms said he expects that the board will also be taking a more active role in the administration of the various organizations. It’s unreasonable to expect, he said, a leader who can do everything. “You have to be a jack of all trades when you’re small,” he said.

“Dan grew up in this organization,” Fowler said, and as its needs changed, his role did, too. He organized the District around arts and entertainment, then shifted to a focus on business, and most recently has been a housing developer. “We aren’t going to find somebody with that broad a skill set,” she said.

“It’s time to separate the administrative and the creative,” Thoms said. “We are looking for somebody different from Dan.”

Fowler said that because of Carmody’s strengths, the Renaissance Rock Island organizations are well equipped for his departure. “Him leaving does not mean that the world’s going to end,” she said. “He put together a really strong team.”

She said that Carmody didn’t hesitate to hire experts in their fields, and wasn’t intimidated by people who knew more about something than he did. She cited Brian Hollenbeck, the executive director of Rock Island Economic Growth Corporation.

Thoms agreed. “We aren’t going to miss much of a beat in the short term,” he said. He also concurred that Carmody’s gift was vision, not administration. “Dan’s forte is not follow-through; it’s not details,” Thoms said. In the case of housing, he noted, Carmody had the idea, but it was Hollenbeck who executed it. So Renaissance Rock Island will be retaining nearly all its programmatic skills.

“I’m not the greatest administrator,” Carmody conceded.

In addition to finding a new leader, Renaissance Rock Island faces plenty of other challenges, Carmody said. One is familiar – a smaller resource base than the other Quad Cities. The community must also deal with stagnant population and business growth.

How Renaissance Rock Island addresses those challenges – and how it changes in the wake of Carmody’s departure – will largely be determined in the next six to eight months, as the organization develops a new strategic plan.

That will partly focus on organizational issues, including making Youthbuild – a program in which at-risk youth learn job skills while building houses – a separate branch in Renaissance Rock Island instead of merely a component of Rock Island Economic Growth. Fowler said Renaissance Rock Island will likely serve as an incubator for Youthbuild – housing and funding it for three to five years before it can make the transition to an independent organization.

Other changes will be minor, such as the governance of the District. Director Pat Frese left the organization earlier this month, and the position will not be filled, Carmody said. While Renaissance Rock Island had in the past four years wanted the District to shift away from events and marketing and toward downtown management, that transition is presently on-hold, he said, until the organization is stabilized.

Carmody added that Renaissance Rock Island is undertaking what he’s calling “the $2-million challenge” – a five-year fund drive meant to provide resources for continuing programs, the Youthbuild effort, District events and marketing, and real-estate projects.

A key challenge facing Renaissance Rock Island organizations is that a record of accomplishment doesn’t necessarily make it easy to solve new problems. Creating and building the District was one thing, but how does the organization sustain the progress, particularly as many of its events lose freshness with age? Doing infill housing downtown and in older neighborhoods is one thing, but improving the Old Chicago area is an entirely different task; Carmody called it “building a whole new neighborhood.”

Rock Island Economic Growth had been focusing on using Low Income Housing Tax Credits as a tool to fund many of its recent rental-housing initiatives, such as apartments in the Renaissance, Goldman, and Voss buildings downtown. But Carmody said the organization is shifting from that approach. While that in some ways is more difficult financially, he said, it has the advantage of “not being held hostage by the state and the feds.”

He envisions Old Chicago efforts as a “multi-generational project” spanning 20 to 40 years.

As a community – the greater Quad Cities region – Carmody said he sees progress everywhere over the last decade, but he doesn’t view that growth and improvement as sustainable. Carmody said the Quad Cities are not only hindered by being broken up into so many different communities, but they’re also trying to encourage downtown and suburban development simultaneously. “We can’t have it all,” he said.

That’s certainly part of the appeal of the Fort Wayne job. It’s a city of 220,000 people with a metro area of roughly half a million. In that way, it’s a “mid-size market” similar to the Quad Cities. But instead of multiple municipalities with separate downtowns and agendas, Fort Wayne has just a single downtown.

A Change Was Due

The loss of Carmody is obviously a major blow to Rock Island, but to hear Carmody and other Renaissance Rock Island officials talk about it, a change was due.

Carmody said he started seriously considering leaving Rock Island on a trip to central Europe in May and June. “It kind of reminded me that there’s a big ol’ world out there,” he said. “It was time to do something different.”

After 18 years on the job in Rock Island, he said, he had started to lose perspective. “You can’t see the forest for the trees,” he said. “You find yourself saying, ‘We tried that.’”

Fowler lauded Carmody for walking away from the job. “He isn’t working at his full capacity,” she said. Taking a different job instead of just cashing in, she said, “takes a lot of balls.”

Thoms said that he thinks Carmody could have effectively led Renaissance Rock Island through its future challenges, but even then the board would have shifted administrative duties away from him, allowing him to focus on ideas and inspiration – the vision and cheerleader role. “We would have turned him more into what he was naturally,” Thoms said.

Carmody almost left the Quad Cities in 1996, considering several positions but ultimately deciding to stay put. “I got recharged and re-focused,” he said of that time. Part of his decision to leave now is based on “the prospect of getting recharged for the third time.”

And perhaps Rock Island and the Quad Cities just seemed old-hat, not enough of a challenge. “I still consider myself a pioneer,” he said.

Yet Carmody also has a healthy dose of Midwestern modesty. He knows he’s a bit of a development superstar in the Quad Cities, but he certainly never acts like it. And when asked what type of person he’d like to replace him at Renaissance Rock Island, Carmody said: “somebody who’ll make the Quad Cities forget me.”
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