"That's why we've said, 'Let's focus on housing,'" said Dan Carmody, executive director of the Development Association of Rock Island and Rock Island Economic Growth Corporation.
The goal is to take a multifaceted approach to create an area that will lead to a vibrant downtown. As Carmody describes it, Rock Island is trying to "woo technology workers and create an environment they can work within, play within, and live within." That means downtown housing options, which the Rock Island Economic Growth Corporation is helping to provide with 52 new loft-style apartments in two downtown buildings.
"You've got a lot of young people working in technology who are making a lot of money," added Chris Barnard, who has developed a small number of loft-style apartments in downtown Moline. And residential development is crucial for the success of downtown, he said: "We need people actually living here."
An overt emphasis on downtown housing distinguishes Rock Island from both Moline and Davenport. Both larger cities have put their major development efforts into attracting visitors and businesses, while Rock Island is instead working to bring residents. That's a big reason Rock Island seems closer to achieving the dream of downtown self-sufficiency than its sister cities.
This is all the more amazing because unlike Moline (which has a major benefactor in Deere & Company) and Davenport (which has its River Renaissance Vision Iowa project), Rock Island has made major strides without much financial assistance.
Carmody views that as a positive. "Because we don't have the resource base, we have to be creative," he said. "Because we don't have that big player, we have to be inclusive."
In trying to revitalize a downtown, Carmody said, there's only so much a city can do. "There aren't many tools in the bag, folks," he said.
Housing made sense. Carmody said one of the most interesting aspects of the 2000 census was that single people - not single parents or two-parent homes - represent the largest number of households. Yet most of the housing being built in the Quad Cities is for families.
For that reason, Carmody believes that downtown housing could be an area that all downtowns could address without competing with each other. The Rock Island Economic Growth Corporation has a goal of opening 400 residential units over the next seven or eight years, and Carmody said he thinks all the Quad Cities could do similar numbers without running out of tenants. "I think there's enough demand," he said. Barnard agreed.
The same can't be said about food, beverage, and arts businesses, Carmody said. At the point of saturation, new businesses are simply siphoning customers from existing ones in other parts of the Quad Cities.
And it's possible that residential development could generate as much money for a downtown as office space. Carmody said his organizations for years wavered between using properties for office space or residential units. The 30,000 square feet on the upper floors of the Renaissance building could be expected to have about 300 employees, Carmody said, while the residential lofts might draw approximately 42 residents.
But people who work downtown are expected to spend about $1,500 a year in the central city, while residents typically spend $10,000 a year, he said. If the Renaissance does end up housing 42 people, it would generate nearly the same amount of money spent downtown ($420,000) as office space ($450,000).
The Rock Island Economic Growth Corporation is one of the partners in the new loft apartments. Workers are putting the finishing touches on remaining apartments in the Goldman building (in which 20 of 28 units are already leased), while construction in the Renaissance building (eight of 24 apartment leased) should be finished by the end of the year.
Of the two buildings' 52 units, 60 percent are reserved for low- and moderate-income renters (people who make $25,000 or less a year). The apartments employ 22 different floor plans, further differentiating them from cookie-cutter apartment complexes. The goal was to create something that "smelt, felt, and looked like market rate," Carmody said.
The Goldman and Renaissance projects couldn't have happened without significant assistance. The partners who are renovating the buildings tapped into nine different funding sources, with the largest being federal tax credits for affordable housing and historic preservation.
While Rock Island is putting the finishing touches on the loft-style apartments in the Goldman and Renaissance buildings downtown, Moline and Davenport haven't addressed the issue of building a residential base. As Carmody said, "I think we're farther along in implementing our plan."
That's not to say that things aren't happening in downtown Davenport or Moline with downtown residential development. At this point, though, it's not being done with government assistance or through city government or downtown interest groups.
In Davenport three years ago, Landmark Properties re-developed the upper floors of the Berg building on Third Street into 16 loft-like apartments. The goal, said company co-owner Jim Thomson, was "to make money," and the apartments have done well, "full from day one." Landmark did get a low-interest loan for façade improvements, and the city provided a guarantee on the purchase of the building next door, but "we were given no money," Thomson said. Landmark had considered the Rock Island projects, he added, but it was concerned about financing and didn't want to create low- and moderate-income housing to get tax credits that would have made the developments more economically feasible.
And Barnard, chairperson and CEO of Blackhawk Travel and Blackhawk Performance Services, has developed three loft-style apartments (including one each in 1996 and 1997) and a loft office in downtown Moline, also without government assistance.
An incentive program could certainly speed things along, he said. "We've got a team assembled," he said. "We just don't have any money." He added that he has identified five projects in downtown Moline "that would be no-brainers if we had tax credits."
In both Davenport and Moline, city leaders are shifting away from their historical focus on big-ticket projects and looking more toward incremental development. So far, though, they aren't putting an emphasis on housing.
Moline has certainly made a large impact on its downtown with major office and tourist projects near The MARK of the Quad Cities and the John Deere Commons. But the energy of that revitalization hasn't yet spread to the rest of downtown. That's the impetus behind the Moline Centre Façade Program, which helps property owners in a very specific area - 5th Avenue between 14th and 15th streets - use a variety of financing tools to improve the rear façades of their buildings.
The hope is that improvements to those properties - which are visible from the John Deere Commons area - will push re-development energy south to Moline's traditional downtown area, said Rick Anderson, executive vice president of Renew Moline.
Similarly, Davenport's efforts to this point haven't focused on bringing people downtown to live. DavenportOne's new Business Development Financing Program is designed to keep and bring businesses downtown. "This is a job-creation program" that's also meant to reduce downtown vacancy rates, said Julie Foreman, a consultant who administers the program.
The pilot project has a December 31 deadline for applicants and $140,000 to use. Foreman said DavenportOne will focus on giving low-interest and forgivable loans but will also hand out grants. Awards can be used for things such as façade improvements and building renovation, and Foreman stressed that the program is meant to be flexible to fill gaps between other assistance.
While this program's primary criterion excludes residential development, DavenportOne's Downtown Partnership has included as part of its goals increasing the number of downtown residents by 30 percent. And the Downtown Partnership has amassed a detailed inventory of all the buildings in downtown Davenport, according to Todd McGreevy, a member of the Downtown Partnership board and publisher of the River Cities' Reader. A list of buildings that could be used for residential development has also been completed and forwarded to DavenportOne leadership. "The Vision Iowa project has taken a front seat with the leadership," McGreevy said. "With patience, I believe we'll see more of what Jim Thomson has quietly achieved."
Housing has been planned as part of the Bass Street Landing riverfront project in downtown Moline: luxury condos, row houses, and a handful of apartments. Anderson added that the Moline Centre plan calls for loft-style residential housing.
But the $37 million Bass Street Landing project is new construction and huge; it ignores smaller developers and existing buildings. Anderson said that property owners downtown must make investments in their properties to complement what the city and Renew Moline are doing. "People have to step up," he said. "The answer to everything can't be, 'Just give me some money and I'll do it.'"
Barnard said that people who own property are willing to make investments, but they need some help. The City and Renew Moline should collect information about incentive programs and help guide people through the processes.
"We're not to the Carmody level ... of sophistication," Barnard said of putting together incentive packages for small developers. "Is it the job of Renew Moline and the city Economic Development Department to help us through that jungle? That's their only job. The leadership has to come from somewhere."
And it can be a jungle. The Goldman and Renaissance lofts had nine different funding sources. A majority of the financing - $3.4 million of the $6.5 million project price tag - came from tax credits for historic preservation and affordable housing, while three different entities funded the first and second mortgages ($2.8 million), and grants accounted for the remaining $300,000. "It's definitely a jigsaw puzzle," Carmody said.
If the Rock Island project is successful, though, perhaps cities such as Moline and Davenport will follow the example. "We are a community of sheep in that regard," Barnard said.