Moline-based Junior Achievement of the Heartland is in the silent phase of a campaign to create a new JA Inspiration Center at Vibrant Credit Union’s new headquarters in Moline.

The Vibrant Credit Union headquarters is at 6600 44th Ave., Moline.

JA has leased space for over 20 years in downtown Davenport (116 W. 2nd St.) that houses JA BizTown and Finance Park, and the lease on that property will expire in July 2024.

“We have maxed that space out,” JA president/CEO Dougal Nelson said Wednesday of the 9,000-square-foot area, which isn’t able to host BizTown and Finance Park programs simultaneously.

The new Moline space is 14,000 square feet, at 6600 44th Ave., between Vibrant’s headquarters and the new Vibrant Coffeehouse and Kitchen.

“We want kids to find a career that they’re really just passionate about, that they love,” he said. “And they be good community citizens, and that’s the pathway to Vibrant, because Vibrant really wants so much for our community.”

JA has had some conceptual drawings done by Edwards Creative.

“Right now, we can either do BizTown or we can do Finance Park,” Nelson said, noting the larger space will allow them to do both at once and offer much more room for other uses as well.

JA of the Heartland president/CEO Dougal Nelson with one of the Inspiration Center’s concept drawings at his Moline office, Oct. 19, 2022 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

The new Inspiration Center will not only allow for an expanded BizTown and Finance Park, but also:

  • The opportunity to explore more educational pathways and career opportunities.
  • Community meeting space and a possible STEM Center.
  • Upgrade technology for simulations – the Quad Cities JA is the only chapter in the country that does not use tablets in their simulations.
  • A safe, convenient and central location for school districts, partners and volunteers.

Each year, JA of the Heartland typically supports 50,000 students in 1,714 classrooms in 23 counties in northwest Illinois and eastern Iowa. It serves 138 schools and youth organizations with the help of 1,600 volunteers.

Working with Vibrant two years

Vibrant (which has bought the naming rights for the Vibrant Arena at The MARK for $4 million) last March moved into the renovated former Sam’s Club in Moline, after 15 months of construction. It opened the Vibrant Coffeehouse and Kitchen next door in late September.

Vibrant CEO Matt McCombs at the new coffeehouse and kitchen, which opened in late September (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“We looked at, how can we maximize the capacity of this building? How can we use it year-round?” Nelson said of the new Vibrant space, noting they began looking for a new location about five years ago.

Vibrant suggested about two years ago that it might work at their new facility, which overhauled the former Sam’s Club south of John Deere Road. JA is in the silent phase of the capital campaign (raising over $1 million so far), but Vibrant is offering the space – on the southwest corner of its building — for just $1 a year (including utilities, parking, maintenance and security), Nelson said. He doesn’t have cost estimates for renovations yet.

Local JA staff has visited similar centers in St. Louis, Detroit, Des Moines and Kansas City.

“We talked a lot to those folks about what would you do differently? What works and what doesn’t work?” Nelson said. “What are you doing to make the experience more hands-on learning? We came up with a lot of great ideas that way.”

He credited Tawnya Hambly (vice president of education) for coming up with the name Inspiration Center.

“With our mission, we inspire and prepare young people to succeed in a global economy,” he said. “It’s all about inspiration. If we can give kids inspiration and confidence, they can do whatever they want. If they lack confidence and don’t have the inspiration, they end up in their parents’ basement.”

Dougal Nelson is president/CEO of Moline-based Junior Achievement of the Heartland (photo by Jonathan Turner).

JA targets students younger than high school for a key reason.

“What we hear from school administrators today, by the time that kids enter their freshman year of high school, they have a pretty clear idea of what they might do,” Nelson said.

“Middle schoolers are starting to build curriculum and classroom experiences to mirror where they want to go – it’s happening earlier and earlier,” he said. “It’s important we expose 4th and 5th graders to the economy and the free enterprise system we’re so lucky to have here. That’s where they really start to explore and understand the value of working.

“You get kids who come back from BizTown and they say, ‘Now I understand why my parents are so tired at the end of the day’,” Nelson said. “I don’t think you can start young enough.”

All jobs don’t require a four-year college degree.

“If I would have known I could have made a career working in the trades, I wouldn’t be sitting here today,” Nelson said. “I just didn’t know that existed. We have to expose kids to all these careers, and line it up with what they’re good at.”

JA also talks about giving kids soft skills – like creativity, communication and collaboration.

“In reality, those are power skills,” he said. “Elevate kids to the next level, that takes them further. It’s interviewing skills, those eye-contact skills. They’re really not soft.”

Ideally, JA wants to have students in the new center in the fall 2024, and start a public phase of the fundraising in second half of 2023.

Serving students grades 4-9

Finance Park allows middle-school students (usually grades 6-9) to explore careers, to see what jobs are out there.

Fillmore Elementary students learned real-life money lessons from Junior Achievement volunteers in November 2021.

“What do those careers pay, and what lifestyles do they have?” Nelson said. “When they get into BizTown, there are separate modules and stations. They learn how to buy insurance, how to buy a car, how to buy a home, why home equity is important. They learn how to budget for a family.”

JA gives students a scenario – this is their family, their salary, and they learn how to budget with 18 line items. BizTown usually serves kids in 4th and 5th grades.

“It’s the only facility in our region where kids get to explore and understand responsibilities of being an adult,” Nelson said.

The students usually spend three-quarters of a day at each of the two programs, preceded by weeks of JA lessons at schools. BizTown has 14 weeks of lessons, including how to open a checking account, and the town simulates a variety of businesses.

“Every store or a shop has a CEO, a CFO, a manager, a sales person, maybe a communications expert,” he said, noting students learn how to set up a business.

There is a mayor for BizTown, and students learn what taxes go for, and voting, among other principles.

“They understand that profit’s not a dirty word,” Nelson said. “all these businesses are connected at BizTown, so they all rely on each other to operate.”

The local Junior Achievement has seen critical need this year for more classroom volunteers.

With the new space, JA will include improved technology and experiential learning.

“Now, it’s a lot of paper and pencil going on,” he said, noting this JA chapter is the only one in the nation that does not use e-tablets for the BizTown simulations.

“There will be a lot of new technology in the new facility,” Nelson said.

JA BizTown combines in-class learning with a day-long visit to a simulated town. This popular learning experience allows elementary school students to operate banks, manage restaurants, write checks, and vote for mayor, according to national JA. Students are able to connect the dots between what they learn in school and the real world.

Following participation, students will be able to:

  • Discuss the roles they play as citizens, workers, and consumers in their community and relate those roles to the free enterprise system.
  • Discuss the importance of citizen rights and responsibilities in a community.
  • Demonstrate a basic understanding of the free enterprise system.
  • Build money management skills through a practical knowledge of economic concepts and banking practices.
  • Develop an understanding of basic business practices and responsibilities.
  • Display the soft skills necessary for successful participation in the world of work.

Finance Park 2.0 is being released next semester, where students will go station to station with tablets, learning about budgeting and purchasing.

“Everybody wants a Lamborghini or as Cadillac Escalade, but due to the budgeting exercise, they’re in a Toyota,” Nelson said. “It’s pretty cool.”

JA had its first summer camp for BizTown this summer, lasting for a week (including what are usually classroom lessons), serving 60 kids from several districts.

“That was kind of cool; we brought kids in from different schools and watched them bond together,” Nelson said.

Most area credit unions and banks (like Vibrant) provide volunteers for JA classes, which is a natural fit for them, he said.

“What we’re trying to here is create a diverse labor force and give back to the community,” Nelson said. “We want kids to grow up here and we’d love it if they stayed here.”

For more information on the local BizTown and Finance Park, click HERE.