They say good things come to those who wait, and Rock Island Mayor Mike Thoms says that patience will finally pay off for a downtown that needs (and is getting) a lot of help.

The new Rock Island Downtown Alliance (RIDA) held a launch party Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023, at Huckleberry’s Great Pizza and Calzones, where those dreams were celebrated.

Rock Island Mayor Mike Thoms, left, and Downtown Alliance board chair Arron Sutherland at Tuesday’s launch party.

“Have some patience, it’s not gonna be overnight, but it’s gonna be exciting,” Mayor Thoms said of many ambitious downtown changes coming. “We need to collaborate together, be positive, help out wherever we can. That makes a big difference.”

The Downtown Alliance is working with the city of Rock Island to fine-tune a $7.4 million capital improvement project in the core downtown area, which will bring major streetscaping and placemaking improvements in the downtown historic district, primarily between 1st and 3rd avenues and 17th and 21st streets.

The proposed scope of work calls for total reconstruction of multiple blocks, along with the addition of decorative lighting, landscaping, signage, outdoor dining structures, greenspace, public art installations and pop-up vendor stalls.

Downtown 2nd Avenue rendering (City of Rock Island)

The project’s centerpiece is the transformation of the 2nd Avenue pedestrian mall into a curb-less festival street to accommodate both pedestrian and vehicle traffic.

The establishment of RIDA and a new special service area (SSA) was the outcome of a two-year effort led by downtown stakeholders to explore the creation of a dedicated place management organization and sustainable funding model to improve, maintain and program the commercial district undergoing revitalization.

Thoms on Tuesday praised the continuation of the city’s commitment to public-private partnerships.

Mayor Mike Thoms speaks at the RIDA launch party at Huckleberry’s (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“We’re going to see great things happen because of this collaboration,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of excitement in the next year, when we start different projects.”

Next spring will begin the downtown streetscaping improvements.

“We’ve talked about projects like this at least since 2015,” Thoms said. “We haven’t been able to implement a lot of them due to lack of funding.”

“Now we’ve got the financing to kick this off,” he said, noting the SSA (carrying an extra property tax for those in the area) will ensure sustainability, that long-term, the improvements will be maintained and taken care of. “That is so important to be able to maintain the assets you have.”

The rear of the unfinished federal courthouse building in downtown Rock Island, seen Oct. 3, 2023 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

The new federal courthouse (at 4th Avenue and 18th Street) will be completed by summer 2024 (interior work still is to be done), and since it’s privately owned (and leased to government tenants), it will generate property taxes, the mayor said.

“High paying jobs in downtown Rock Island, to help support businesses like this,” Thoms said. “Have some patience, but it’s happening as you can see.”

The new Rock Island YWCA (to open this fall at 5th Avenue and 17th Street) also will be another great asset to downtown, he said.

Big plans unveiled

With dozens of downtown workers, business owners, residents and property owners present at Huckleberry’s, RIDA executive director Jack Cullen highlighted the organization’s recent achievements and priorities moving forward, including a new capital improvement grant program, a clean and safe program and small business promotions during the coming holiday season.

The new RIDA logo displayed at the Huckleberry’s launch party Oct. 3, 2023 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

The RIDA recently unveiled its new logo and branding (shown at Tuesday’s party), which reflect the organization’s growing capacity to pursue its mission of providing services and activities for the city’s SSA that enhance public spaces, encourage private investment and improve quality of life in downtown Rock Island.

“With our expanded team in place, we’re ready to deliver the work we’ve been planning the last two-and-a-half years based on input from downtown stakeholders,” Cullen said. “We’re grateful for the efforts of the downtown business community, the city of Rock Island and our Board of Directors for enabling this level of attention and resources the downtown deserves.”

New RIDA operations manager De’Andre Robinson, left, with one of the new cleaning ambassadors in front of Huckleberry’s Pizza, 223 18th St., Rock Island.

In September, RIDA hired its first operations manager, De’Andre Robinson. In his role, Robinson will lead a crew of Cleaning Ambassadors and help manage partnerships with the city, law enforcement and social service providers. Residents and visitors alike can expect to see Robinson and the uniformed street team using a freshly-branded red Downtown Alliance utility vehicle and mobile cleaning carts as clean and safe efforts get off the ground.

That will include trash and graffiti removal, as well as business assistance and outreach to the homeless population, Cullen said Tuesday.

“We heard again and again how big a priority this was to the downtown, for it to be clean and safe,” he said.

Cullen also recommended a call to action, for those who attended Tuesday to help in downtown’s public perception, and talk up what’s good about the area (in person or social media).

“We see you all as influencers and ambassadors for the downtown,” he said. “Thank you in advance for your support in doing that.”

Tracking results

All work in the field will be supported by a new mobile software application that tracks daily boots-on-the-ground activities, from the number of trash bags filled and graffiti tags removed to businesses assisted and engagement with members of the street population.

One of the downtown eyesores, at 19th Street and 1st Avenue, awaits potential demolition (photo by Jonathan Turner).

The data will be tracked in real-time to measure progress and show the impact of the organization’s work across the roughly 65-block area served by RIDA. Data will also help inform the Downtown Alliance board and influence future priorities, work plans and budgets.

With these new additions in personnel, equipment and technology, RIDA is primed to achieve its primary objectives this fiscal year, which include:

  • Assist developers, entrepreneurs and small businesses seeking downtown space or an improvement/expansion to their current space.
  • Create a capital improvement grant program to incentivize exterior property investments and supplement city financial assistance programs.
  • Implement a “Clean and Safe” program to provide quality-of-place services, such as litter pickup, weed abatement and mobile safety patrol, in the public realm.
  • Break ground on the city’s $7.4-million Rebuild Downtown Rock Island streetscaping project.
  • Produce downtown business promotions and special events to boost visibility and sales.
  • Work closely with the city on code enforcement, signage regulations and right-of-way beautification and maintenance issues.
Arron Sutherland, CEO of Illinois Casualty Company and board chair for the Downtown Alliance, at Tuesday’s meeting (photo by Jonathan Turner).

Arron Sutherland, CEO of Illinois Casualty Company and board chair for RIDA, said he was recruited by Cullen (who works for the Quad Cities Chamber) to promote the SSA effort, among other downtown property owners. His company has been in Rock Island since 1950.

“Our roots are here and we want to see it thrive. We’re invested in Rock Island,” Sutherland said. “We want to see that investment grow.”

The proposed roundabout in downtown Rock Island, 2nd Avenue and 18th Street.

“Lots of you in this room are like me – you have an investment in downtown and you want to see that grow,” he said. “If you want that to grow, we have to invest our time, our effort, our support.”

“We take this seriously, we take overseeing the money from the SSA seriously and are going to ensure we take that money for what is needed in Rock Island,” Sutherland said. “I learned a lot through this process.”

The RIDA is also developing a new capital improvement grant program to enhance curb appeal throughout downtown, Cullen said. They are designed to supplement city grant programs, to launch in early 2024.

Dean Fait, owner of the Art Place (1606 2nd Ave.), said downtown Rock Island has to do a better job when they’re competing with other downtowns in the QC.

Dean Fait, owner of The Art Place, 1606 2nd Ave., Rock Island.

He hopes the improvements will help attract more businesses. Fait is not thrilled about paying more taxes through the SSA, but sees the need for it.

“It is what it is,” he said. “I haven’t seen results yet. This sounds pretty good; we’ll see what happens.”

Fait moved his business downtown (at his current location since 2005) after being at all three malls – NorthPark, SouthPark and the former Duck Creek in Bettendorf.

“I love it down here; we’re a destination,” he said. “People come to me for picture framing. There’s a lot less of us in the Quad Cities, and the whole United States, than there was before.”

For more information on downtown Rock Island, visit its website HERE.