Arts Alley, a public alleyway at 1719 2nd Ave., Rock Island, will get a major overhaul and revitalization with the help of a $267,181 grant for the Quad Cities Chamber and city of Rock Island 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 Tax Increment Financing (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.

Rock Island Mayor Mike Thoms speaks in Arts Alley on Tuesday, May 24, 2022 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“It takes a collaborative effort to make these things happen,” Rock Island Mayor Mike Thoms said Tuesday in a press conference on the site, next to Quad City Arts, 1713 2nd Ave. Upon final review and approval by the Rock Island City Council, the project is expected to begin this fall and finish in 2023.

The city and chamber also have submitted a $3-million state grant to spread needed improvements throughout downtown.

“These types of statewide grant programs are extremely competitive, so it’s exciting to see the state of Illinois recognize and support our ongoing efforts to revitalize downtown Rock Island through this award,” said Jack Cullen, downtown Rock Island director for the QC Chamber.

“Arts Alley is a unique but underutilized shared space,” he said, “and this funding will allow us to turn it into a vibrant urban art gallery, event venue and family-friendly destination for both Quad Cities residents and visitors.”

A rendering of the planned new entrance to Arts Alley, next to the Quad City Arts Center in downtown Rock Island.

Improvements to Arts Alley will include new signage, lighting, professional murals, interactive art installations, spaces for live performances and film screenings, new pavement, landscaping and a heating component to make it accessible throughout the year.

Other planned improvements downtown include Great River Plaza (the pedestrian mall on 2nd Avenue), bettering the connections between the riverfront and business district, a proposed dog park by Illinois Casualty Company, and enhancing the overall look and feel of downtown, Cullen said.

For Arts Alley, new rentable vendor stalls will provide a platform for entrepreneurs and small business owners to sell their products during seasonal pop-up programs, starting during the November-December holidays, Cullen said.

Created in the ’90s

The city created Arts Alley in 1994, to fill a gap left by a demolished building and to establish a colorful pedestrian gateway between the riverfront and Rock Island’s arts and entertainment district.

Jack Cullen, downtown Rock Island director for the QC Chamber, speaks Tuesday in Arts Alley, which has long been home to public art (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“What we’re wanting to do with this project is take it to the next level and create a tourist attraction and destination for the Quad Cities and downtown Rock Island,” Cullen said. He displayed colorful renderings of what the newly redesigned areas will look like, and encouraged people to submit comments online about them.

“We want the artists community and the general public to be helping us out, because we want the Quad Cities to be excited about coming to this space,” he said.

The project also aims to pay homage to artist and Rock Island native Irma Rene Koen (1883-1975), who operated a studio and arts/crafts shop in the building that was there in Arts Alley, he said.

“Her story has never been part of the Arts Alley story, because she didn’t gain much notoriety in the Quad Cities,” Cullen said, noting she left in the ‘40s and spent the rest of her life in Mexico. But Koen’s art has been exhibited all over the world, and was the subject of a Figge Art Museum exhibit in 2017.

“We were very excited, working with local historian Dr. Cynthia Empen, who has unearthed a lot of the research about Irma,” Cullen said. “We’re really excited about making that connection in Arts Alley for the community.”

He plans an interactive art installation to pay homage to Koen, including a circa 1912 painting of 2nd Avenue downtown.

Activating public spaces

Quad City Arts executive director Kevin Maynard said this project represents what his nonprofit is about – “activating public spaces through art, and about putting artists to work,” he said. It’s also special since Quad City Arts shares a wall with Arts Alley.

Quad City Arts executive director Kevin Maynard speaks Tuesday, May 24 in Arts Alley, as Mike Thoms and Jack Cullen look on (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“We’re going to have some beautiful murals and some artists’ pop-up vendor stalls, and spaces for pop-up performances,” Maynard said. Quad City Arts will help in the process to find the right artists for Arts Alley.

They’re working with the Chamber, Visit Quad Cities, and the public, he noted. Arts like this help drive businesses and visitors to the downtown, Maynard said.

“People will go out of their way to see public art,” he said, noting two-thirds of all tourism is driven by art. “Cultural tourists also spend twice as much money.”

Less than a block south of the Great River Road National Scenic Byway, Arts Alley is in the core of the nationally designated Downtown Rock Island Historic District. Alleyway neighbors include Quad City Arts Center’s gallery and retail store and Icons Martini’s bar and event venue.

“An enhanced Arts Alley will benefit all of Rock Island,” Maynard said. “It will boost civic pride and be the catalyst for a true revitalization of Downtown Rock Island by increasing foot traffic to surrounding Downtown businesses, which will lead to increased interest in business locating in Rock Island and more events happening in Arts Alley.”

Renderings of the refurbished Arts Alley were on display at Tuesday’s press conference at 1719 2nd Ave., Rock Island (photo by Jonathan Turner).

Nicole Watson-Lam, owner of nearby Ms. BriMani’s Hair & Beauty Supply and The Urban Reserve, a new luxury event suite, is excited to see the investment in Arts Alley just a few steps away from her building and businesses.

“My life is invested in my building and businesses, and I want to see them thrive,” said Watson-Lam, who also serves as vice chair of the Downtown Rock Island Steering Committee managed by the Chamber. “The Chamber’s partnership with the city and the work we’re doing with the Steering Committee is offering a starting point to better Downtown Rock Island and showing that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”

Wins for city and region

Dave Herrell, president/CEO of Visit Quad Cities and board chair for the Illinois Council of Convention & Visitor Bureaus (ICCVB), applauded the state’s investment, calling it “a win for Rock Island, a win for the region and a win for the arts community that is so critically important to our destination development efforts and energy.”

Dave Herrell is president/CEO of Visit Quad Cities.

“We’re going to activate this space in a very meaningful way,” he said. “It’s something that’s going to effectuate change with our creative energy, which is one of our core pillars as a destination. Hopefully, we can realize a legacy within our arts and culture space, which is so critically important.”

“It’s time for Rock Island to be more,” Herrell said. “There’s amazing bones in Rock Island. It’s got a fabulous story and I think it’s all our responsibility to continually tell that great story of Rock Island.”

Arts and culture has to be prioritized in the QC, he added. “There is an amazing amount of artistry in our region and we all need to remember – these people need to be loved. We need to tell their stories, do whatever we can do support them.”

In early 2021, the city contracted with the QC Chamber to provide downtown place management services. Jack Cullen, director, downtown Rock Island, has been meeting with business and property owners, the Downtown Rock Island Steering Committee as well as Streamline Architects to envision the project and its full potential.

Planned improvements also align with developments called for by members of the public in the City’s Downtown Revitalization Plan. To see renderings of Arts Alley and other downtown plans, click HERE.

To provide public input on the Arts Alley project, click HERE.