The steps are falling into place for the creation of a new Rock Island Downtown Alliance in 2023.

The new place management organization, under the Quad Cities Chamber, would be funded in large part by $310,613 in annual tax revenue from a new downtown Rock Island Special Service Area (SSA), which was OK’d last week by the City Council. At tonight’s meeting, Rock Island aldermen are slated to formally approved a new SSA tax levy — equal to 1.15% of the assessed valuation of property owners in the district.

The Great River Plaza in downtown Rock Island will be renovated under a $7-million revitalization plan of the city and QC Chamber. (photo: Brian Weckerly)

The new organization would function in similar fashion to the existing Downtown Davenport Partnership and Downtown Bettendorf Organization (also funded through the Iowa counterpart of SSAs), of the QC Chamber, said Jack Cullen, director of downtown Rock Island for the Chamber. Moline and East Moline also have downtown SSAs.

On Dec. 12, the Rock Island council voted 6-1 to approve the new SSA — roughly the area between 1st and 7th Avenues and 13th and 28th Streets. The tax shall be levied for the 2023 calendar year.

The city may provide the services directly or enter into a services contract with a service provider agency. In the latter case, payment shall be made by the city to the provider using funds from the SSA tax levy, the chamber said. Those funds shall be restricted to improving the business and cultural environment of the area, and downtown stakeholders on a governing board of directors shall help guide specific use of the funds.

A draft agreement between the city and the chamber for management of the SSA, via a new Rock Island Downtown Alliance, is being negotiated, Cullen said Monday.

Downtown 2nd Avenue in Rock Island, looking west from Quad City Arts at right (photo: Brian Weckerly).

“There’s also a waiting period that’s ongoing for an opposition petition to be filed,” he said, noting an operating agreement would come back to the City Council in January. “If there’s no successful petition filed, the Special Service Area would be officially established in mid-January.

“The agreement to manage it would be planned to be completed in tandem with that,” Cullen said. “The next steps would be putting together a board of directors, identifying a work plan and budget, the specific types of services and activities this entity will be providing. Those are all future steps.”

Starting work by July 1

The new organization would have other funding sources besides the new tax, including a city contribution, Cullen said, noting the new group would be organized by July 1, 2023.

Jack Cullen has been downtown Rock Island director for the QC Chamber since April 2021.

“It’s just getting all the other pieces in place. So by July 1, we’ll need a work plan and budget in place and to be approved so that we get the machine up and running.”

“We don’t know exactly what types of services and programs we’re going to be funding yet,” Cullen said. “That will be a decision for the board to make. So, there are still some unknowns, but we at least have our general timeline in the coming months.

The new group would be run and managed similar to the existing DDP and DBO of the QC Chamber, Cullen said. That would include operating special events downtown.

“Special programs, events, and promotions are definitely examples of services that a place management organization can provide,” he said Monday. “It will come back to the board in how much they want to invest in in these different areas, but activating public spaces through special programs, promotions and events is a great example of what a place management organization can do, bringing the public and private sectors together.”

Another major focus will be working with the city to better attract new businesses to fill vacant buildings, Cullen said.

One of the downtown vacant eyesores, at 19th Street and 1st Avenue across from McKesson Lofts, Rock Island (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“But it’s also about supporting our existing businesses and amenities and making sure that they have the resources that they need um to succeed,” he said. “There are potential grant programs for building owners and business owners to enhance their, enhance their spaces. Um you know, existing business support, as well as business attraction will be a focus naturally of this organization.

The city has $7 million in funding to make physical improvements downtown, on the Great River Plaza and Arts Alley. They’re putting together a final scope of work for the streetscaping and placemaking improvements.

“I would look for the first few months of the new year to see something at City Council in terms of a recommended scope of work,” Cullen said.

“Obviously, we’re excited about making those making those improvements to the downtown infrastructure,” he said. “That’s a big part of revitalization that’s in process.”

The city also plans improvements to narrow 1st Avenue (Illinois 92), between the riverfront and downtown, Cullen said.

“That’s reducing the amount of traffic lanes on 1st Avenue through the downtown, just to make it more accessible from the riverfront park and trail system to downtown businesses and other attractions,” he said. “That’s to make it more walkable and pedestrian friendly between the riverfront and the downtown business district.”

New buildings to help

Construction of the new federal building and YWCA also should help attract more business development, Cullen said.

The new federal courthouse rises at the corner of 18th Street and 4th Avenue in Rock Island on Dec. 16, 2022.

“Those are just part of the pie,” he said. “Those other improvements to the public spaces and the investments that will be made into the streetscape, the downtown infrastructure, the urban landscape, a lot of money is being invested that will create some exciting changes downtown.

“You combine that with the private developments that are happening — it is only going to create a more welcoming, business friendly environment,” Cullen said. “Especially if you put the Special Service Area and the attention to detail that the place management organization provides for downtown, there’s a bright, bright future ahead for downtown.

“It’s all of those things happening at the same time, that I think creates this nice energy for downtown,” he added.

A rendering of the new downtown Rock Island federal building, to be finished by summer/fall 2023.

Mayor Mike Thoms appointed a downtown steering committee in 2020 to continue the implementation of the city’s 2015 Downtown Revitalization Plan. The group recommended the establishment of a downtown place management services agreement, and in late January 2021, the Rock Island City Council approved a two-year contract with the Chamber.

Starting in April 2021, Cullen has served as the liaison between downtown business and property owners and the city. He’s worked to explore the creation of a downtown place management organization, seek grant funding and develop a long-term sustainable funding model.

The city’s two-year-contract with the Chamber was for $225,000. The city has paid the chamber using tax-increment financing (TIF) funds — $110,783 through Dec. 31, 2021, and $114,107 through Dec. 31, 2022.

Rock Island has received a $3-million state grant for downtown improvements.

A rendering of proposed improvements to Arts Alley next to Quad City Arts in downtown Rock Island (Streamline Architects).

Arts Alley, a public alleyway at 1719 2nd Ave., will get a major overhaul and revitalization with the help of a $267,181 grant for the Chamber and city from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

The city has committed about $200,000 for Arts Alley, among $1.5 million in downtown TIF revenue for downtown infrastructure improvements. Additional matching funds for the $535,000 Arts Alley project come from the Doris & Victor Day Foundation, Quad City Arts, Rauch Family Foundation, Rock Island Arts Guild and the Rock Island Community Foundation.