Editor's note: This is the first in a series of articles on new developments on Quad Cities-area downtowns. When you have a lot of dreams, it's sometimes difficult to prioritize them. Karen Pohl didn't have to.

For a long time, she wanted to own a coffee shop, a wine shop, and a bed-and-breakfast. And although those three businesses don't seem like natural matches, Pohl is stacking them one on top of the other at the new Café Noire at 1623 Second Avenue in downtown Rock Island. (The first-time business-owner will also live in the building for good measure.)

When she was telling the building's owner, Jeff Guthrie, her different ideas for a business, he encouraged Pohl to combine her ideas. "Why don't you just lease the whole building?" she recalled him asking her. So she did.

Café Noire is slated to open this weekend, and it's just one of several new developments in what's clearly the fastest-growing downtown area in the Quad Cities, in terms of the number of things happening. Years of hard work and planning, with some luck, have resulted in many different energies combining in Rock Island, giving the city's downtown the juice it needs to successfully re-develop.

In May, the wine and cigar bar Copia opened where Co-Op Records had been. In late June, Glass Impact moved across Second Avenue to a facility that is two and a half times larger than its old one. The QC Brew & View, in the old Glass Impact building, is targeting a Labor Day-weekend opening.

And those are on top of other improvements in recent years. RIBCO undertook a large re-modeling project, said owner Terry Tilka. (And by the end of the week, Tilka said, there should be a new sculpture installed behind the bar.) Tilka also opened the upscale dance club 2nd Ave. last year, and it's one of the hottest nightspots in the Quad Cities. And for its 25th anniversary, Circa '21 playhouse got a new marquee that mimics the original from 1921.

These cultural developments haven't been alone. The Robert Young Center for Community Mental Health broke ground August 5 for a $2.6 million Community Support Program facility in the 2200 block of Third Avenue, a new building in a location better-suited to its client base than its current home at 1728 Second Avenue. And the City of Rock Island has more than $8 million in improvements to streets, a parking ramp, the plaza, and the Centennial Bridge approaches scheduled between now and next summer, according to City Engineer James Johnson.

In addition, the Rock Island Economic Growth Corporation has announced plans for the riverfront Clipper Condos just off the Centennial Bridge at Second Avenue and 16th Street, and that project comes on the heels of the organization's successful Goldman and Renaissance building loft-style apartments that were finished last year and now have a sizeable waiting list.

Dan Carmody, executive director of the Rock Island Economic Growth Corporation and the Development Association of Rock Island, said all the activity in downtown Rock Island is "a really well-balanced portfolio" that includes projects of a variety of sizes. "I'm as excited about some of the smaller projects as I am some of the big ones," he said.

"It's good to see what's going on in the block," said Glass Impact Managing Director John Watts.

Downtown Rock Island, Pohl said, is fast becoming an urban neighborhood, where people not only work and play but also live. She relates that a complete stranger brought her dinner last week. "There's a real family feel," she said. "We can help each other out."

The downtown area is also building a cosmopolitan feel. "I've lived in big cities, and I hated to leave all those amenities," Pohl said. "I didn't have to."

Bringing People to the Street

Café Noire shows one way how different parties can work together to get something accomplished. The Rock Island Economic Growth Corporation bought the building in conjunction with its Goldman building apartment project. Guthrie, who had been interested in buying the building a few years ago - when it was not for sale - bought it from the not-for-profit corporation in late winter, and he's leasing it to Pohl. "We simply bought it to ... facilitate its re-development," Carmody said. Rock Island Economic Growth Corporation sold the building to Guthrie for no profit, he added.

The lower-level coffee shop takes advantage of the building's 20-foot width; it's decorated as if patrons are walking in an alleyway in France. The interior walls look like the exteriors of buildings. The stairway to the wine loft is papered with labels from wineries from across the world. Pohl said she typically starts working before 7 in the morning and often doesn't leave until 10 at night - seven days a week. When asked about the hours she's putting in, she replied, "There's something different about doing it yourself." Pohl's enthusiasm, energy, and attention to detail seem boundless; people who stop by in the evening are often treated to a tour.

The coffee shop will feature gourmet beverages and sandwiches. (All sauces served in the café will also be available in the gourmet store.) And Pohl said she hopes the wine loft will fill the gap in downtown Rock Island that was created when Gendler's re-located to downtown Moline. While the café won't serve wine, customers will be able to buy a bottle in the wine loft and drink it with food in the café.

The bed and breakfast will feature two rooms, both with showers and whirlpool baths, high-speed Internet access, TV sets with DVD players, and private phone lines. Although Café Noire and its wine loft should be open this week, the bed-and-breakfast portion of the business probably won't be open until late September.

Devin Hansen is targeting Labor Day weekend to open the QC Brew & View in the old Glass Impact building at 1611 Second Avenue. The concept behind the business is to combine the experiences of a movie theatre and a bar - allowing patrons to sip domestic, imported, and micro-brewed beer (perhaps including local brews) while watching recent Hollywood flicks, independent releases, classics, and cult films on an 18-foot-wide screen.

Hansen said he plans to screen movies from '70s classics such as Taxi Driver and Deliverance to upbeat contemporary indies such as Smoke Signals and Amelie, as well as second-run Hollywood fare. Also expect cult classics such as The Wall and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and "so bad it's good" nights. (Hansen is already entertaining suggestions on the Web site http://www.qcbrewview.com.) The proprietor promises that the theatre is "going to mix it up" with its film selection.

Hansen said the hardwood floors, exposed brickwork, and unusual building layout will contribute to the venue's unique feel. "One of the neat things is going to be the atmosphere," he said.

The nonsmoking QC Brew & View will feature movie-theatre seats with counters in front for food and beverages, as well as some couches and other comfortable furniture for lounging. In addition to beer, the establishment will offer Poor Boys pizza, specialty popcorn, nachos, vegetarian appetizers, and standard movie-theatre concessions fare.

These and businesses such as Copia and 2nd Ave. cater to an older, more mature demographic, bringing diversity. Mike King, owner of Copia and Hickey Bros., said he wanted to attract young professionals to his lower-key bar.

Hansen and his business are the beneficiaries of the departure of Glass Impact from 1611 Second Avenue. Glass Impact's Watts said the glass-art studio and gallery had been out of space at the site for several years, but it didn't want to leave The District. "We never considered moving anywhere else," he said.

Glass Impact purchased two buildings across the street on April 15 and opened its new digs on June 21. The new venue at 1616 Second Avenue allows Glass Impact to have more classes, more gallery space, and "a cleaner look in the gallery," Watts said. (A larger storefront and more shade also mean the glass looks better to passersby, he said.)

Watts said that businesses in The District and community leaders - particularly Carmody - work together, and that's paying off right now. "I think the energy was there," he said. "It's gained momentum. ... There's more and more art traffic down here."

That's been helped since its opening in March by the joint ArtFX/MidCoast Gallery West at the corner of Second Avenue and 16 ½ Street. "It's been very well received," Donna Lee, proprietor of ArtFX, said of the galleries. Lee said that the presence of a sales gallery reinforces that works in MidCoast's space are also for sale.

The Midwest Writing Center will also be using part of that storefront for its headquarters and programs, most likely starting in September. "Everything that's happening is an art form of some type," Lee said. "We're encompassing all forms of art."

Jennifer Fowler, executive director of The District of Rock Island, said that development efforts in downtown Rock Island have expanded geographically. "We're kind of branching away from what people think of as the core," she said, referring to the two-block central area of The District. Development along Second Avenue, particularly the new apartments, "really added some traffic and some people on the street."

That's a function of the addition of housing to the Rock Island business district, creating an urban core that's always populated.

"I think one of the most important aspects of a vibrant downtown is people living in it," said All Kinds of People owner John Decker. "We hope that as they continue to convert these buildings into dwellings, more people will utilize the neighborhood coffee shops, drug stores, and restaurants."

Urban Housing

The concept of an urban neighborhood started becoming more of a reality with the completion of 52 rental units in the Goldman and Renaissance buildings last year. Those units leased quickly and set the tone for housing development in downtown Rock Island. The buildings employ a large number of floor plans, which make them attractive to people seeking something interesting and unique.

And because 60 percent of the units are set aside for low- and moderate-income tenants, the buildings have brought a diverse residential population. The Renaissance building has drawn a younger, hipper crowd, while the Goldman apartments have attracted both young couples and empty-nesters, said Brian Hollenback, housing director for the Rock Island Economic Growth Corporation. "A lot of those people are customers," King said. "One of them is an employee of mine."

The neighborhood offers a large number of amenities, Hollenback noted, beyond the array of arts groups and clubs. Residents are within walking distance of 15 restaurants, the YWCA, public transportation, a public library, and a bike path.

The Goldman and Renaissance buildings have been so successful that Rock Island Economic Growth Corporation is planning a second phase of loft-style rental properties scheduled for construction in summer 2003.

But adding rental housing downtown doesn't by itself create a true urban neighborhood. People who own their property are much more likely to take active roles in their communities and neighborhoods. The $1.6 million Clipper Condos project will feature nine residential units and two commercial spaces.

The condos feature a number of loft-like features - open floor plans, exposed-brick walls, stained concrete floors, and 11-foot ceilings - and will range from 880 square feet to 1,600 square feet. Prices range from $110,000 to $210,000.

Already, the highest-priced unit is under option, Hollenback said. Carmody said four of the residential units are already pre-sold.

And demand for the rental units in the Goldman and Renaissance buildings shows that people want distinctive living spaces downtown. "We've already demonstrated the need here," Hollenback said.

The Rock Island Economic Growth Corporation has also put a lot of efforts into the historic neighborhoods surrounding the downtown area, such as the Broadway, Old Chicago, and Longview districts. Brining a population with diverse incomes to the central city is essential to building a downtown retail base, Carmody said. "They have to be considered a team," he said.

Certainly one of the big holes in downtown Rock Island is a grocery store. But Pohl is even trying to fill that gap, with the essentials - things such as toothpaste and cereal - in a general-store corner of the wine loft.

"We're not done," Carmody said. "It's a process."

Tom Swanson contributed to this article.

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