Project NOW plans to buy the Star Cres International building at 1830 2nd Ave., Rock Island, and move its downtown offices there after renovations in about a year.
The nonprofit organization’s current building (two blocks away, at 418 19th St.) is not large enough and would be challenging to renovate. Project NOW executive director Rev. Dwight Ford said the community action agency would grow from about 9,000 square feet currently on two floors, to 35,000 square feet on three floors.
“We have not only outgrown this building, but we have team members that are working off site or at home at times,” Ford said Friday. “When walking into this building, there is no designated reception area. We don’t have an elevator. We have team members stretched between four quadrants of the building on two floors.”
Project NOW also needs a central community gathering space, which the new location will have.
“Something I’m deeply committed to is, we not only dignify individuals we serve by the way we treat them in language and speak to them. We not only dignify them in the great services we provide, but we also dignify them in the space in which we serve them,” Ford said.
“It is far past the time for an agency that serves low-income, low-wage families to bring their buildings to a level of dignity and concern for those who have to occupy them for their services,” he said.
Ford wants to “raise the bar — to not only say our staff deserves a building that’s fitting for their subject matter expertise, their education and experience, but also for our community as a whole,” he said. “We want people to know when they come to us, they don’t have to sit on chairs that are broken, or buildings that are falling apart, held together with duct tape and bubble gum and shoestring. We want to commit to a level of excellence in all that we do.”
Project NOW serves Rock Island, Henry and Mercer counties, and administers federal housing programs in a 15-county area in northwest Illinois.
Its services include:
- Head Start kindergarten readiness for 330 children ages 3-5 years.
- Utility assistance for over 7,000 households; food assistance; rent and deposit assistance.
- Transitional housing; permanent, safe, affordable, housing.
- Emergency needs assistance (dental, car repairs).
- Emergency furnace repair/replacement.
- Weatherization services.
- A Good Things NOW used clothing store at 605 SW 3rd Street, Aledo.
- Serve over 2,000 seniors with home-delivered meals, congregate meal sites, information and assistance, and door-to-door transportation through the RIM Rural Transit program.
Project NOW helps families and individuals connect to the information and services they need to keep their homes and apartments. Some of the ways they help include helping customers connect to medical assistance, utility assistance and transportation assistance.
Outreach workers/case workers work hand in hand with other community programs to help customers get the help they need. Individuals or families who have already lost their homes, for instance, may be given the name and address of a local shelter(s) to take care of their most immediate need for housing.
Project NOW’s shelters include Sojourner House (for domestic violence victims) and they help run Winnie’s Place with Churches United (serving women with or without children who are homeless and/or survivors of domestic abuse).
Ford oversees a staff of over 130 (some positions are unfilled), at several locations, including a Rock Island County Senior Center at 2221 11th St., Rock Island. The senior services would move to downtown, and transportation services would remain based on 11th Street.
Project NOW also this year acquired three housing units of DeLaCerda House in Rock Island, the only housing designated for people with HIV/AIDS in a 15-county area. It is absorbing the DeLaCerda board into its housing committee, and a few employees, Ford said.
The agency has been looking at Star Cres since last January. The three-story office building has some federal government tenants that plan to move to the new federal courthouse (at 4th Avenue and 18th Street, Rock Island) by the time it opens next summer.
Project NOW has signed a purchase agreement, and Ford declined to reveal the sale price. They’re in a 60-day due diligence phase now.
“We were looking at creating a super-center that leveraged our strengths and would have been more cost-efficient,” Ford said, noting the three nonprofits already partner in some services.
“We just couldn’t turn it over fast enough so we had to let go of that aspirational hope,” he said. “Our agencies work closely together and we are committed to partnering. Our boards understand each other.”
Bethany moved its main administrative offices this past spring to 1701 River Drive, Moline.
The new Project NOW community room will have capacity for 100 seniors to come to the congregate meal site and activities, Ford said. The current senior facility on 11th Street can only accommodate 35-40 people at once.
The Star Cres building will include separate classrooms and meeting rooms, and the central transportation hub will remain at 11th Street, to free up more space.
Project NOW provides transportation services for rural Rock Island and Mercer counties.
“This will allow us to strategize for future growth,” Ford said. “People live further from the places they work and that’s where we come in. We want to do more in that area.”
Quarter-million in city help
Earlier this month, the City Council approved granting $250,000 in federal ARPA funds for the Star Cres building renovation. The council has previously voiced its interest in combating the problem of homelessness, and much of the work that Project NOW does is centered on that issue, according to the city redevelopment agreement.
Following feedback from the City Council, city staff proposed that the $250,000 in ARPA funding that was allocated to address homelessness be used for renovation assistance.
A redevelopment agreement can be created stipulating that funds provided by the city are to be used for various building improvements that would extend the life of the building, increase its long-term value, and generally improve the downtown. All of that would be in addition to making it better able to meet Project NOW’s needs, the agreement says.
The City Council had previously approved using $780,000 in ARPA funds to address homelessness, mental health and tourism — $250,000 each. This is the portion for homelessness, figuring Project NOW would be the best steward of that money. Aldermen Judith Gilbert and Bill Healy opposed; the motion passed 5-2.
Like other agreements of this kind, it would work on a reimbursement basis so that qualified expenses could be documented and confirmed prior to payout. A project deadline would be established requiring that Project NOW completes the renovation within a set period of time.
Ford said he’s very thankful for the partnership with the city and commitment of ARPA funds.
“The $250,000 for renovations are really needed as we bring that entire building — particularly the third floor, spaces that have been without occupancy for a while — to a level that we want them to be,” he said. “We’re excited about the future.”
Project NOW wanted to remain centrally located, to more easily host their partner meetings and board meetings, and to serve low-income individuals and families that live in the immediate area, Ford said.
“We can have more private conversations,” he said. “I want to offer that to many more of our community members and team members, so they can have a conversation without being overheard. This is really important to us.”
Being downtown is also vital for Project NOW, being close to the central bus hub across the street.
Planning a new cafe
The former M.D. Green’s building just close by on Great River Plaza will be renovated by Project NOW to become a new Cafe NOW, offering a new eatery and employment opportunities, Ford said.
“It’s going to be a wonderful cafe, where we’ll allow people to engage in conversation and feel part of downtown,” he said. “It becomes a training hub for us, as we help re-tool individuals, training in the hospitality industry. Our goal is to get a wonderful chef there and train individuals for those industries, still looking for competent, capable people. We’re excited about the possibilities of not only training, fellowship and proximity to the downtown and also a great product.”
“Social enterprise is something we take seriously, to be part of the economic structure,” Ford said of the cafe. “This helps us to be able to charter a new pathway forward, not only for those who may not have felt a part of the economic structure, but also for our staff to see that the way forward in the future demands that we become much more a hybrid.”
“The best way to do that is merge the two realities, where you have the high-level sensitivity, concern and approachable-ness that people need,” he said. “One of the hardest things for people to talk about is their economic status. The level that we have to engage people is to ask for help, rather than drifting or wasting away in a level of want and need, without the care that is being provided.”
“We want them to know there is no shame — it’s not the weak person that asks for help; it’s the strong person that wants to remain strong,” Ford said. “Shame and disgrace are the principal suffering of the poor. We need to rid that off of individuals.”
Their employment services have included job training, small business development and small business loans.
Ford is also excited about the millions of dollars to be pumped into beautifying the downtown area, and creation of the Special Service Area to maintain the improved streetscaping and keep it clean and safe.
“We want to do all that we can to partner and push the endeavor across the finish line,” he said. “Whatever Project NOW can do to be not only a good neighbor, but an active partner in using the brain trust that we have, our agency supplies a lot of resources to area contractors.”
Project NOW owns its current building across from the downtown library, as well as 10 other commercial properties. It hasn’t decided what will happen to the current headquarters.
“This is a big step for us, and also a chance to connect with the business community in ways our agency hasn’t in the past,” Ford said. “As that season is ending, our board and staff will. add insight as to where we go next and will make a decision based on the need of the community as a whole.”
The renovation process is expected to take at least a year, to move by late 2024.
“We have been working for years, decades, separate and apart from each other. This gives us a chance to have a one-house reality — that not only benefits customers, but also benefits us in ways as staff members,” Ford said.
“We’re looking forward to this reality, as we’ll have much more communication, much more innovative possibilities of being in one location,” he said. “We’re able to centralize every division in one house. That doesn’t mean we’re going to forsake places we have been in. It just means we’re going to do things differently.
“As the world has shifted under our feet — when the world shifts, it behooves all of us to do all we can to move with it, rather than be resistant to it,” Ford said.
Many local people are one crisis from economic ruin and homelessness, he said, noting health issues, addiction, domestic violence, mental health challenges, or a car accident.
“We can serve up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $60,000 for a family of four,” Ford said. “That’s so many of our residents.”
The agency is also getting into a busy time, with colder weather coming, in its Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which offers:
- One Time Benefit Payment
- Percentage of Income Payment Plan
- Reconnection Assistance
- Emergency Furnace Assistance
For more information on Project NOW, call 309-793-6391 or visit its website HERE.