Demolition finally underway in downtown Rock Island for new federal courthouse

Local News

After more than five years of sitting empty, the long-awaited demolition of the old Bituminous Insurance (BITCO) building began Thursday morning at 320 18th St., Rock Island.

The site will become home to a new $20-million federal courthouse, which like BITCO, abandoned downtown Rock Island for Davenport temporarily three years ago.

“Today is a big day for all of Rock Island,” said Liz Tallman, vice president of development services for the Development Association of Rock Island (DARI). “This demolition is a major milestone to make room for the new office building that will house government offices – including the United States District Court.”

Liz Tallman, VP of development services for the Development Association of Rock Island, spoke Thursday morning, Nov. 4, at the demolition ceremony (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“This transformational project will bring new jobs, new investment, expanded services and positively impact Rock Island for many years to come,” she said.

Rock Island city manager Randy Tweet said this project has been bid and re-bid several times, and deadlines have come and gone.

“It’s been extremely frustrating for us in the city. We expect to announce this and something happens, and it’s delayed another six months,” he said. “It’s a great location for the courthouse. This building may look solid from the outside, but if you go inside, you see why it’s been vacant for several years. There’s no possibility of re-use, so to be able to remove a structure from a main corridor in Rock Island and replace it with a new federal courthouse is really gonna be a boon to downtown Rock Island.”

“I can’t tell you how happy we are to finally talk about this project we’ve been wanting to talk about for four or five years,” Tweet said.

Bituminous (which formerly employed 150 people at its old headquarters on the site) formally changed its name to BITCO Insurance Companies in September 2014. At that time, the names of the company’s policy-issuing companies were changed to BITCO National Insurance Company and BITCO General Insurance Corporation.

Liz Tallman speaks Thursday at the BITCO site, which was abandoned in April 2016, when the company moved to a new headquarters in Davenport, also built by Russell (photo by Jonathan Turner).

In April 2016, BITCO’s corporate headquarters were relocated from Rock Island to a new $7.2-million building in Davenport, 3700 Market Square Circle (south of 53rd Street between Utica Ridge Road and I-74.

Today, BITCO provides specialized insurance services to unique industries at the heart of U.S. infrastructure, including transportation, construction, building contractors, forest products, wholesale, distribution, manufacturing, oil and gas extraction and more.

Russell Construction collaborated with the company in 2014 to design and build its new headquarters in Davenport. Part of that deal was for Russell CEO Jim Russell to purchase the old building, said Kelly Young, Russell’s director of government development.

In February 2017, Russell divested the property at auction to an investment group from New Jersey and the building sat vacant since then. Jeff Eirinberg of Rock Island, and his partner Mike Fisher, with KATCO Resources, have been Russell clients, and expressed interest in acquiring the property.

They have developed federal GSA-leased projects for several years, and now co-own the Rock Island site with Russell. The courthouse final building rendering is still under design with the GSA team, Young said.

Kelly Young, Russell’s director of government development, speaks Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“We’re so proud to be part of this,” she said, calling this “a catalyst project for downtown Rock Island.” Russell has done countless projects in Rock Island, including at Augustana College and over $100 million in work on Rock Island Arsenal in the past 15 years, she said.

“We’re very happy that it landed here, that we’re able to put this nice new building here,” Rock Island Mayor Mike Thoms, said of the new U.S. District Court for the Central Illinois District, which left its old location two blocks away (322 16th St.) in October 2018. “Another positive thing about this, it’s going to increase our property taxes. This is going to be owned by a private developer and leased to the federal government.”

Rock Island Mayor Mike Thoms speaks about the project Thursday (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“Thank you for everybody’s commitment to make this happen,” he said. The Central District serves 46 counties in Illinois, and also has courthouse locations in Peoria, Springfield and Urbana.

Chief Judge rules in favor of project

“I couldn’t be more excited,” said Sara L. Darrow, Chief U.S. District Judge for the Central District of Illinois. “On behalf of Judge Jonathan Hawley, our Clerk of Court, our Chief of Probation, and our courthouse family, from the Rock Island federal division here today for this endeavor, I want to thank you.”

“This project is so important – not only to the community in terms of revitalization, but to our justice system,” she said. “This building will house public proceedings through the courthouse and through our partners in federal agencies. This courthouse and this building will provide the appropriate settings for significant proceedings and serious proceedings that occur in our courts.

“It will provide a place for respect for the law in our community,” Judge Darrow said. “It will provide an environment that inspires civic engagement and gives us meaningful access to justice for the citizens of our community.

Sara Darrow, Chief U.S. District Court Judge for the Central District of Illinois, spoke Thursday at the demolition ceremony.

“This historic project is a place where we as a community can witness the naturalization ceremonies that are so vital to the diversity and robustness of our local community,” she said. “This project also will be a place where our local schoolchildren can engage in mock trial exercises, in a real courtroom, that allows them to be inspired and grow their understanding of our justice system.”

Darrow has worked on developing courthouse improvements for eight years, and the Central District of Illinois courthouse left its old location in downtown Rock Island three years ago. The U.S. District Court for her district operates out of the federal courthouse in downtown Davenport.

“Having a new space is going to be an amazing opportunity for us to enhance our ability to serve the public,” Darrow said. “We’re really excited about what this new space will bring to our court family and our court operations.”

The new building will not necessarily mean much more space, though it will bring back all the federal offices that have been scattered since the courthouse left Rock Island, she said.

The Rock Island federal courthouse moved its cases to the Davenport federal courthouse (131 E. 4th St.) in the fall of 2018.

“It will be nicer space,” Darrow said. “Now, we’re a little spread out, since it’s not just the court, which we’ve been conducting in Davenport. But it’s the U.S. Marshals, the U.S. Probation office, court security officers, and the clerk’s office, and they’re actually housed over here right now, temporarily. It’ll be nice to be all back together, to have a more efficient and effective administration.”

Those other federal employees have been working at the old American Bank building, Darrow said.

Developers work on federal projects nationwide

Jeff Eirinberg and Mike Fisher have developed General Services Administration (GSA) projects all over the country for 18 years; Eirinberg has lived in Rock Island since 1973.

They did the Social Security offices in Rock Island and Davenport; the new National Weather Service at the Davenport airport (about four years ago), as well as buildings for the U.S. Geological Survey and Drug Enforcement Agency, but this will be their first federal courthouse.

“We’ve done a whole host of Social Security offices,” Eirinberg said Thursday, noting they always own the property and lease it to GSA. This is not the biggest project they’ve built, which was a $100-million project for a series of specialty warehouses, in Des Moines and Omaha.

He’s very proud to be able to invest in such a major improvement in the heart of his hometown.

“The greatest pleasure is that it’s in Rock Island, rather than in Moline or something else – for the simple reason that it gives Rock Island a serious reason to kick off a great program of informing the Quad Cities how great this city really is,” Eirinberg said.

“I believe the city has gotten a little bit of a bad bump and this gives us reason to talk about it positively,” he said.

Eirinberg supports the proposed special service area for downtown and an additional tax to help fund city improvements, and attract new businesses. “Absolutely,” he said.

The Downtown TIF district has expired, and the city council has set aside $1 million for improvements to the city parking garage across the street, Tweet said. The TIF had been through 37 years, until expiring last year.

The city hopes the new courthouse will help attract more business downtown, such as new eateries. “With over 100 new jobs here, they’ve got to go someplace for lunch,” Tweet said. “With this and the Y bringing new people down here, and some work we’ll do in the Plaza area downtown, the council set aside $1.5 million from the downtown TIF for improvements.”

“We hope it all comes together and there’s more life in the downtown – daytime life,” he said.

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