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News/Features - Local News
Tuesday, 28 November 2000 18:00
The potential departure of Jumer’s Casino Rock Island from that city’s downtown riverfront to another location in Rock Island could have been seen as a devastating blow to revitalization efforts the riverboat helped spark, and to businesses in The District.

Instead, community members and District businesses appeared ready to accept the casino’s departure with little regret at a pair of public meetings two weeks ago.

“The most telling part was that people are excited about the possibilities,” said Dan Carmody, the moderator of the meetings and executive director of the Development Association of Rock Island (DARI).

A total of between 70 to 80 people attended meetings at 7:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. on November 15. Attendees were given an update of various projects – including the casino situation, removal of tolls on the Centennial Bridge, and streetscape projects on 4th and 5th avenues. The focus of the meetings then shifted to opportunities and problems created by the casino’s possible move.

Carmody said that he and others involved in redevelopment efforts in Rock Island had not yet thought much about the hole that would be created if the casino’s relocation plans come to pass. He said that people at the community meetings generated a lot of ideas. “There are a lot of things we can do,” he said.

“I came away from these meetings delighted,” said Bill Renk, Casino Rock Island’s vice president of sales and marketing. Community members “see that it would be good for the community,” he said. “It’s not what they lose; it’s what they gain. I daresay that everybody’s behind us.”

Last month, Casino Rock Island officials presented to the Illinois Gaming Board a plan to move its casino from the Rock Island riverfront to near the intersection of Illinois Route 92 and Interstate 280 in the southwestern part of the city. The location being considered is presently a gravel and sand quarry owned by Moline Consumers Company near the Rock River. The casino has begun discussions with the company about purchasing the property.

The move would allow the casino to expand, which it can’t do on the city’s downtown riverfront because of space constraints. Renk said the casino would like to add between 400 and 500 slot machines.

“We really don’t know when we’re going to hear one way or the other” from the Illinois Gaming Board, Renk said. “It’s so preliminary.” The board next meets December 5, but Renk said he doesn’t anticipate action on that date. The board has several technical issues to decide, including whether the site qualifies as being “on” the Mississippi River. The fate of the casino’s request will hinge on the board’s interpretation of the law and its intent – for example, whether being in the Mississippi River flood plain counts as being on the river, or whether the law simply requires the riverboat to be in a city on the Mississippi, not on the river itself.

But Carmody was optimistic in the community meetings. “It’s more than likely that the new site will be found attractive to the gaming board,” he told the afternoon session. “That’s a best guess.”

Renk said it would be at least two years following approval by the gaming board before the casino would open at a new location. Nonetheless, people who attended the meetings were eager to talk about ideas for a new riverfront project to replace Casino Rock Island.

Citizens recommended creating a harbor atmosphere; an outdoor concert venue and park; a boat with multiple restaurants; new moderate-income and upscale housing; a museum or welcome center; and a transportation hub. Other possibilities include the ability to proceed with armory redevelopment and the elimination of some downtown parking problems.

Residential development was especially high on Carmody’s list of priorities. “Housing is a critical piece of what we need,” he said after outlining plans to create 400 new residential units in downtown Rock Island over the next decade. He also suggested that the Armory location could be used to build an apartment complex.

Some housing development is already underway. The Rock Island Economic Growth Corporation earlier this month announced plans for a $6.2 million renovation of two buildings on 2nd Avenue to create 52 loft-style apartments. The apartments should be ready for tenants in September 2001, and 20 percent of them will be set aside for low- and moderate-income tenants. Already, demand has been strong, with approximately 80 people interested in leasing units.

A site review is also underway for another 50 downtown apartments, Carmody added.

Other developers are also looking to create housing for a more upscale market in or near Rock Island’s downtown. Bob Yapp, managing member of The Tuscan Group, said his organization is currently gutting the 8,000-square-foot Anastasia Murphy House in the Broadway National Historic District for four loft-style condominiums. The units will sell for about $200,000 each, he said, but “pricing doesn’t seem to be an issue” with potential buyers. The condos should be ready for occupancy in late spring or early summer. “Nobody’s done these kind of lofts before” in the Quad Cities, he said.

While those two housing projects are clearly geared toward different tax brackets, both are trying to capitalize and build on Rock Island’s reputation for being more cosmopolitan and hip than other Quad Cities, especially with the arts and music focus of businesses in The District.

More importantly, housing development downtown gives businesses a built-in population base, which could offset any loss of customers that businesses in The District would face if the riverboat casino leaves.

Business owners in The District say that while they didn’t get much patronage from casino customers, employees frequent their establishments. “We probably see more of the employees than the customers,” said Terry Tilka, who owns RIBCO but did not attend the meetings two weeks ago. Tilka added that he’d like to see more specialty shops and offices move to downtown Rock Island, to give The District some life during the day and in the early evening.

Other businesses in the area expect a larger impact if the casino leaves, however. “We do a lot of work with them,” said Peter Berman, general manager of the Four Points Hotel by Sheraton in downtown Rock Island. “It would have a huge impact on The District of Rock Island and downtown, and it would be a substantial loss for us.” Berman estimated that 3 to 4 percent of his hotel’s business comes from the casino.

Citizens at the community meeting seemed to agree that a key to keeping downtown Rock Island viable will be attracting families for entertainment activities.

They expressed some concerns about the casino’s departure, though.

“I’m worried about the image problem” of downtown Rock Island, said one person attending the afternoon session.

“Which one?” Carmody asked, adding that public impressions – about the distance between south Rock Island and downtown, about safety, about the dominance of bars in The District, and about parking problems – are “going to be with us for a while.”

Another citizen worried what would happen if nothing were done to replace the boat. Others wondered about how a new riverfront project would be funded. “We as a community have found the funds somewhere,” Carmody reassured.

Rock Island has always been forced to do more with less money than other Quad Cities, Carmody said. For example, riverfront re-development efforts in Moline got a massive boost from Deere and Company. “We’ve spent a fraction of what they have spent,” he said. Meanwhile, Bettendorf and Davenport are vying for a portion of the $180 million Vision Iowa fund for riverfront redevelopment.

Carmody said that efforts in Rock Island have often relied on “piecemeal” financing. The 52-apartment project has seven or eight funding sources, for example, while other development has received financial support from businesses, city and state governments, and not-for-profit organizations, he said.

Without large amounts of capital, the Casino’s presence was a major contributor to Rock Island’s success over the past decade. Most citizens appreciate how the casino has been an anchor since it opened in 1993 and helped The District establish itself as an arts and entertainment destination.

“It created a nice tax flow for the city,” Tilka said, and spurred revitalization over a several-block radius. He also said that Rock Island has “probably made as many strides as anybody. It would have taken most cities 20, 25 years.”

Tilka added that he thinks the casino’s departure wouldn’t stall the Rock Island renaissance. “Do I want to see them leave?” he said. “No, I guess not. … [But] The District has built itself up enough that it will survive.”

Dan Cleaveland, co-owner of the Blue Cat Brew Pub, said he’s not concerned about the situation. “You never base your business on another business,” he said. “The boat being here might have attracted some businesses, but the businesses themselves need to stand on their own.”

The casino “served the purpose of creating this fertile ground,” Renk said. “I think now it [downtown Rock Island] is secure in its position. We can once again be a major catalyst for further development [elsewhere]. It’s 10 years later, and it’s happening all over.”

Carmody said the proposed casino site could serve to spur development in the new location, thus uniting north and south Rock Island. “We have to make sure we don’t have two Rock Islands,” he said. A new and bigger boat will also increase tax revenues for the City of Rock Island, perhaps providing even more money for development efforts downtown.

But communities need to be wary of any proposal promoted as a “panacea,” Carmody stressed. Citizens and developers in Rock Island need to understand that a big project to replace the casino won’t work unless it’s part of a larger vision.
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