Rock Island Economic Growth Corporation (Growth) has not only helped grow its home city, but the 40-year-old nonprofit has grown immensely, to boost development across 14 states.
Launched in fall 1982 in Rock Island, Growth has become a national leader in developing innovative housing opportunities and commercial developments by facilitating community partnerships. President/CEO Brian Hollenback rejoiced Tuesday night with community leaders in a 40th-anniversary party at Rock Island Brewing Co., noting Growth (with a full-time staff of less than 12) has produced $500 million in financing over its history, helping create 13,800 jobs.
Growth was incorporated to revitalize and create new community and economic development opportunities for Rock Island — expanding into a complex, multi-faceted nonprofit working to revitalize underserved communities throughout the nation.
Former Mayor Mark Schwiebert said at the Tuesday celebration that it was very fitting that Dan Carmody (former co-owner of RIBCO, head of Renaissance Rock Island and Growth Corp.) was in attendance, and for years has been based in Detroit.
The RIEGC’s origins actually were in Detroit. In 1982, when Schwiebert was a new City Council member, they visited Detroit for a National League of Cities convention.
“One of the things we came across when we were there was a Detroit Economic Growth Corporation,” he said. “In the last night of the conference, I can remember getting together with several of our council members.”
Then on the top floor of the aptly named Renaissance Center, in the cocktail lounge, the Rock Island leaders hatched the idea of an Economic Growth Corporation for their city. “We brought that back to town here, initiated that,” Schwiebert said.
“It was the beginning of a great thing that went on for many years and continues to this present time,” he said. “I describe it as the acorn that grew to a magnificent oak, that we’re all benefitting from.”
“It has been a great trip and it’s wonderful to be part of,” Schwiebert said, noting progress continues with the recent City Council approval of a new Special Service Area for downtown improvements.
Since 2007, Carmody has been president of Detroit’s Eastern Market Corporation, where he leads the nonprofit charged with converting one of Detroit’s most venerable institutions into one of the nation’s most comprehensive healthy metropolitan food hubs.
“He’s one of the most gifted individuals I’ve ever met,” Hollenback said of Carmody in a Monday interview. “He’s incredibly creative, with a ‘we can do this’ type attitude.”
When they did the Renaissance-Goldman Lofts in downtown, a wall was collapsing at night, and Hollenback called him to help. By 2 a.m., they cleaned the street up, and so by 7:30 a.m., the street was open and didn’t look like anything happened.
“That’s a good example of working with Dan,” he recalled. “He is a tremendous leader, but he was always right there to work. It wasn’t as though he’d just give you the instructions – it was, let’s do this together.” Carmody told his version of the same wild story Tuesday.
Hollenback credited the “leadership, commitment, and compassion that the business community had, that really birthed that renaissance was like something I’ve never seen anywhere. The strength and leadership of our various boards that direct us that lead us in these decisions.”
Carmody Tuesday noted that a consultant’s study in the late ‘80s recommended the city tear down Circa ’21 to create parking for the struggling Fort Armstrong Hotel next door. Another consultant sang the praises of Circa, recommending demolition of the decrepit hotel for parking.
“The good news was, the city didn’t have any money to tear down either one,” Carmody said. “Density and those iconic buildings, we can’t get enough of them.”
Revitalization in R.I. and beyond
Hollenback presented a slide show Tuesday to show Growth’s extensive revitalization efforts made state-by-state. These are accomplished through an organizational structure made up of multiple subsidiaries including Central States Development Partners, Inc., Home Base Property Management, Growth General Contracting, and multiple LLCs for its multifamily development activity.
Growth received the 2020 Nonprofit of the Year Award by Northwest Illinois Economic Development for its redevelopment efforts of Shimer Square in Mount Carroll, Ill., a total overhaul of the former 14-acre college campus.
“Three administrations, six years in a row, $220 million of federal credits,” marveled Hollenback, who’s president and CEO of both Growth and Central States (the national for-profit). “When you look at this amount, it definitely puts the Quad Cities on the map.”
“We really target our most vulnerable communities and with these resources, empower them to provide solid, livable wage jobs,” he said.
Since its formation in 2009, Central States has sought to bring critical jobs, services, and goods to low-income communities that have affordable housing needs, high rates of rent burden, low wages, and significant needs for affordable services in low-income communities.
Since 2012, Central States facilitated and/or deployed nearly $100 million in federal and state New Market Tax Credits in Illinois for a total of 3,009 jobs created/retained. It’s received $9.1 million in Iowa.
A recent $60-million award of federal New Market Tax Credits “clearly demonstrates that we have our act together,” Hollenback said. “We do exactly what we say we’re gonna do. We perform beyond what we commit to do. And we couldn’t do it and be so successful if we didn’t have a tremendous team within the Growth team, and communities in which we work. It takes strong leadership.”
“Most people don’t realize we did the East Moline Expo Center and in that scenario, we were the Hail Mary,” Hollenback said. “The deal wasn’t going to close and we stepped up in the 11th hour,” he said $3 million for the Bend XPO. The 70,000-plus-square-foot event center formally opened in July 2021.
“We are committed to making communities better and we’re here to do that,” Hollenback said. “There’s no room for egos in this stuff. This stuff makes my brain hurt; I’ve been doing it 10 years and every day, I become more humble because I realize how little I do know and I need to be respectful of those that know more.”
Growth’s 40-year track record includes:
- 20 multi-family developments creating 351 rental housing units, investing $81.7 million, supporting 1,026 jobs.
- 391 single-family units, investing $73.4 million, supporting 707 jobs.
- 166 single-family rehabilitated units, investing $5.2 million, supporting 42 jobs.
- 840 homebuyers assisted, to purchase homes in northwest Illinois, deploying $15.4 million in downpayment assistance.
- 3,000 people received homebuyer education.
- 404 assisted in foreclosure prevention and emergency mortgage assistance.
- 1.173 assisted in emergency rental assistance.
- 29 federal New Market Tax Credits, investing $217.4 million in deeply distressed areas in 14 states. These projects represent a total of $683.9 million in total development costs.
- 236 units of rental residential housing and 45 commercial units under management.
James Jones, housing manager for Growth, has been with the group five years. He oversees the Live-Work Rock Island program, and helps people become homeowners and avoid foreclosures.
“With the COVID pandemic, and day-to-day life, a lot of people have had challenges when it comes to keeping up with their bills, and that’s what we’re here to do,” he said Monday. “To help people get back on track and help direct them to programs designed to help them out.”
Live-Work Rock Island started in 2003, serving employees of DARI (Development Association of Rock Island) members. You can receive a grant equal to 5% of the purchase price and $1,500 in closing costs for buying a home in Rock Island.
It’s for anyone moving to the city, from outside or within Rock Island, Jones said. It’s helped over 420 clients since the program started. “It helps increase the tax base and helps people who may have thought about becoming a homeowner, thought they would never be a homeowner. For a lot people, it is their first home.”
Jones is excited to see how much progress Growth has undergone over the years.
“It definitely is a group effort here in the community,” he said.
Carey Jorgensen, director of property management, started with Growth in 2001 as manager of the Renaissance and Goldman Lofts in downtown. The Growth projects include:
- Renaissance Lofts, 136 18th St.
- Goldman Lofts, 1625 2nd Ave.
- Clipper Condominiums, 151 16th St.
- Murphy Lofts, 2207-2209 7th Ave.
- Bowlby Condos, 1623 2nd Ave.
- Sala Flats, 1829 4th Ave.
- Broadway Townhomes, 1000-02 17th St., 938-944 22nd St.
- Voss Brothers Lofts, 2125 3rd Ave.
- Douglas Park Place, 720 9th St.
- McKesson Lofts, 100 19th St.
- Jackson Square, 2411 4th Ave.
- Goldman Family Block Lofts, 1612-1624 2nd Ave.
- The Locks, 100 20th St.
- Star Block, 1821-1823 2nd Ave.
- Villas at College Hill, College Hill Circle
- Garden District, 2408-2460 3rd Ave.
Home Base Property Management formed as a separate subsidiary in 2017, does leasing of residential and commercial units, marketing and overall property management. Some units are owned by DARI.
They have properties in Rock Island County, Galena, Springfield, Sterling, and soon Wilson Lofts in Clinton.
“It’s pretty amazing. I’ve seen a lot of development, increase in staff,” Jorgensen said Monday. “It’s a small group of people doing a lot of different jobs.”
Wilson Lofts is Growth’s first project in Clinton, expected to be completed in February. Centre@501 near the State Capitol in Springfield converted a former Catholic church (in 2018) for apartments, commercial and the former chapel is a community room.
Jorgensen has a staff of seven, including maintenance and property managers. “We stay very busy,” she said.
Loving historic restoration
Andrew Fisher is construction director, for the past nine years. In 2015, they started Growth Contracting Corp., which is a way to generate revenue and work on smaller projects. “It was a good move on our part to do projects in house,” he said.
Fisher hires subcontractors that vary by project. “We don’t perform any of the construction; we just manage the project.”
“I’m a big fan of the historical restoration of these buildings,” he said. “I don’t like to see anything torn down. There’s a lot of worth left in these buildings. As we turn them into apartments, we can bring new life to a family, helps build the downtown.”
The Shimer Square in Mount Carroll is a 14-acre campus they’re working on. “That one is kind of my baby,” Fisher said. “That’ll be an interesting one.”
He’s very proud of the Star Block building on Rock Island’s Great River Plaza (2nd Avenue), done in 2017. “That was really a troubled building,” Fisher said. “Once we started, we had to hold the second floor up while we rebuilt the whole first floor. It was challenging from the start to the finish, but it was a beautiful project and they’re beautiful apartments.”
“The craftsmanship that it took to build that building in the late 1800s, you find that today,” he said. “Most cities want to tear ‘em down and build new, because it’s cheaper, faster, more economical. Why tear something down you can’t put back?”
The Springfield Centre@501 was a blighted property that Growth converted to 25 residential units, and ”their conference room rivals any conference room in the state of Illinois,” Fisher said. “You just wouldn’t believe it was a church. It’s now used as another big center of attention for Springfield. That was probably the neatest end use for a property.”
The first part of the Shimer Square development is a $1.5-million renovation of the old President’s House, so they can have the Growth construction offices and a housing resource center there. “It’s gonna be a neat campus when it’s done. It’s beautiful.”
Cindy Berg, CFO since 2017, handling finances of all the organizations with support staff.
“It’s getting more challenging as we keep adding and adding, but we’ve got good systems in place,” she said. “We’re experienced at doing them all.”
Central States has done projects from coast to coast, from Florida to Washington State. They’re not necessarily the most complex to fund, Berg said, noting some local multi-family developments have required several layers of financing to get them accomplished.
“It isn’t cheap to do, so there is quite a bit of financing involved,” she said. There are typically a combination of public and private-sector funding sources.
What are tax credits?
Central States has been successful in getting state and federal tax credits because they produce results, Berg said.
“The previous allocations have been used in the way the program was intended for – to create jobs and create facilities that serve those that are in low-income communities,” she said.
In tax credits, Growth sells them to an investor, which supplies money for each project. The investor ends up using the tax credits in return.
Berg is also looking to hire a new employee. When she started, Central States just got its first award and Growth hadn’t taken on Home Base. The entire organization manages over $200 million in assets, she said.
“We’ve grown exponentially during the five years I’ve been here,” Berg said.
Beth Payne, Growth vice president, been with them since 2010 (starting as Hollenback’s executive assistant). She focuses on marketing and administration.
“We wanted to establish ourselves as a national community development entity for purposes of affording more resources, to get ourselves established in under-served communities,” she said.
Central States aimed to do similar projects nationwide based on the success Growth had in Rock Island.
Keeping business in R.I.
Two of the major tax-credit projects here were to help Hill & Valley Bakery and McLaughlin Body. The NMTC has to be used primarily for commercial projects, versus housing, Payne said.
Hill & Valley had been at risk of moving out of Illinois, and that project allowed them to stay in Rock Island, and move to the growing Columbia Park area in the east end of the city.
“That really helped bolster the Columbia Park plan and relocate the bakery there,” Payne said. She credits Hollenback as being an inspirational leader.
“You just have to stay in the passenger seat and hold on for the ride,” she said. “It’s one of those, you learn a lot. I’ve always said to anybody, whether I work with them, you don’t really realize what this organization does until you work here. You realize all the aspects of life we really hit.
“Under-served individuals, with our homebuyer programs, working for years to help get people into a home, to really marketing our community,” Payne said. “Creating business opportunities, housing. Any block you walk around, you see an impact.”
“We are really an organization that is positioned well for when there’s any type of disaster,” she said. “With the pandemic, we were often the first phone call – from a business to people who were residential, who didn’t understand what was going on. We were always the first phone call. We helped them understand what was available to them – kind of created a one-stop shop and created a listening ear.
“We’re making sure we were answering the needs of businesses,” Payne said, noting Growth also tries to refer people to other organizations in the area that can meet their needs.
They hosted a Housing Resource Fair on Nov. 30, which pulled together 14 agencies. “We were able to point people to the agencies that could help them,” she said. “Whether it be emergency utility assistance – that’s not a program we administer, but we can point them in the direction of. And a lot of people experiencing homelessness and we don’t offer that program, but we were able to point people in that direction, of different public agencies to really help them.”
That has always been a role for Growth, Payne said.
The organization is opening a new office in Aledo for the Northside Lofts project and in Mt. Carroll for Shimer Square, and Central States shares office space in Florida, Colorado and Austin, Tex.
Renaissance man since 1998
Renaissance Rock Island (which also kicked off in 1982) was the umbrella organization for Growth, DARI and (later) The Rock Island Arts & Entertainment District.
“The business community came together, after a failed attempt at a business improvement district 40 years ago and within that business community raised half a million dollars,” Hollenback (who’s now 63) said.
From 1982 to 1998, there was significant investment (much from the Doris & Victor Day Foundation) into the Broadway neighborhood, to restore old homes, Hollenback said.
In 1998, he became housing director for Growth (overseeing the merger of that organization and the former Breachmenders). He managed the first YouthBuild Quad Cities for three years and spun it off into its own nonprofit.
Growth’s first goals were to address blight, health code and safety, and repurpose vacant, blighted structures into mixed-use developments.
“We worked very closely with the various neighborhood groups,” Hollenback said. “In those early years, we would meet with the various neighborhood associations and stakeholders.”
He became Growth president in 2008, at the same time he was named Renaissance CEO (that hat later went away).
“Under the Renaissance Rock Island umbrella, we started to grow and take on new initiatives,” Hollenback said. “We started as a neighborhood group; we became a citywide group, a regional group and then a national group, to help bring precious resources to our community.”
“I’d like to believe there’s a re-Renaissance of activity taking place with activities taking place, and the construction that’s taking place downtown right now,” he said, noting the building of a new federal courthouse and YWCA near each other.
“I remain very optimistic we can have a re-Renaissance of our community,” Hollenback said. “Our role has changed significantly – we still develop. But we’re also significant funders. Our role has changed significantly.”
Growth has an agreement to manage Bridge Investments (which also is in the McKesson building), a community development financing institution. It is member-based and its mission is to provide capital for under-served markets. Hollenback also serves as executive director of Bridge, and Growth’s Frank Perez is the loan officer.
That relationship has been going five years and recently did strategic planning.
Growth moved into McKesson (110 19th St.) in 2011, after being in office space in the Goldman building on 16 ½ Street for nine years. A former three-story warehouse, the 60,000-square-foot McKesson building sat vacant for eight years before Growth acquired and transformed it with 22 live-work condos and first-floor commercial space.
With so many needs still in downtown Rock Island and locally, why did Growth really expand to focus beyond the QC area?
“We only go to communities by invitation,” Hollenback said Monday. “That there is consensus from the community, what their needs are. And you have support from the leadership, the administration, because if you don’t have that support, you’re making something very difficult almost impossible.”
Growth also looked at opportunities – in the fourth quarter of 2021 alone, it funded $33 million in the state of Illinois, he noted.
“Its net benefit in the form of jobs, creating in excess of 600 jobs in distressed communities, and these are livable wage jobs,” Hollenback said. “That’s one of the requirements through the New Market Tax Credit program, that you’re creating livable, sustainable jobs, that also provide benefits.”
“We’ve been very active in the Illinois side of the Quad Cities,” he said. With investing of nearly $100 million in the Mt. Carroll area, Growth is able to do that “because of strong relationships,” he said.
“It’s the passion of the people I have the privilege of working with,” Hollenback said. “Not only at the board level, we keep our communities engaged. We do outreach events. We want to hear from the community what the needs are. I don’t know. I know what the need is on my block, but beyond that, the best source of information is the businesses and the residents that live there.”
“Our staff, those that work here, are a tremendous resource,” he said.
Northside Lofts in Aledo will transform a former junior high school, and Growth last January hired a new vice president, Charlotte Flickinger, who is leading the development efforts for the organization.
“Sometimes, we forget the number of individuals who have been adversely affected by COVID – whether it’s underemployment or unemployed,” Hollenback said. “That’s really where staff has been working seven days a week, with people in the Quad Cities and throughout the state.”
Growth is recapitalizing investments in downtown Rock Island, in Jackson Square, Sala Flats and Renaissance-Goldman Lofts, with over $2 million in new capital.
The recapitalization work includes building improvements like new roofs, tuckpointing, HVAC systems and appliances, he said. Jackson Square represents just about $500,000 in investment.
For more on Growth, visit its website. You can see a comprehensive guide to their developments on this page.