Rock Island city leaders were forced to look at its soul and future in a new Unplugged session Wednesday night.

A public town-hall style meeting, it was the first such session in three years, held Wednesday, Jan. 18, at the Stern Center downtown, complete with complimentary food and beverages. It was attended by Mayor Mike Thoms, City Manager Todd Thompson, and several department directors.

Andy Boswell, a 21-year Rock Island homeowner, spoke at the Rock Island Unplugged session at the Stern Center Wednesday, Jan. 18 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

Andy Boswell, a longtime Rock Island homeowner with three kids, got to the crux of Rock Island’s challenges. He’s worked on local committees and recruited people to move to Rock Island, including his in-laws who moved from northern Minnesota.

“We have a lot more opportunities here than other smaller towns, and there’s just a different flavor and feel to Rock Island,” he said with a voice of weary resignation Wednesday night.

“I’ve seen things decline in the 21 years I’ve been a homeowner,” Boswell said. “I’ve watched neighborhoods get worse, the streets get worse, the police department not have as much enforcement, businesses leave.”

“Why should I stay? Why should my kids want to continue to call Rock Island their home?” he asked. “What do you see in five years and 10 years, that you’re gonna keep me and my retirement pension here, spending my money in Rock Island and continuing to love the city?”

Mayor Thoms sees the city as a “very vibrant, active community,” noting city, business and nonprofit leaders are investing a lot of time and money into improving downtown. The new YWCA, federal courthouse and school district administration facilities are all under construction downtown.

A rendering of the new federal courthouse being built in downtown Rock Island.

“We’ve got $7 million the city is investing downtown; we’ve got the new SSA, special service area that’s happening now, for sustainability, for people who own properties and businesses downtown to help set that direction,” he said.

“Now we’ve got some good resources and plans,” Thoms said. “It’s happening now, but we may not see the results of it for a couple years.”

The mayor noted the city also has a perception of being unsafe, including many shootings in the past year.

Several downtown Rock Island buildings have been defaced with graffiti, including this one at 19th Street and 1st Avenue (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“We’ve had things here and there, but we’re no different from other cities in the Quad Cities,” he said. “We all need to be talking about positive things, rather than negative, saying I’m not going downtown because it’s not safe. We haven’t had a shooting downtown for years.”

“Retail is going to be a hard thing to come back from, here or anywhere,” Thoms said.

Facing challenges together

Todd Thompson, who’s been city manager about seven months, said Rock Island is a fantastic community that does have challenges.

“We need to address poverty in the community. We need to address infrastructure; we need to address public safety, but there’s real reason to be optimistic,” he said. “You’ve got a strong City Council that’s committed to the city. You have an excellent staff. We need to partner with community organizations and with the citizens to identify our priorities and our challenges, and work together to overcome them.”

Mayor Mike Thoms speaks at the Rock Island Unplugged meeting Wednesday; at left is City Manager Todd Thompson (photo by Jonathan Turner).

Police Chief Richard Landi started here in 1993, at the time there was a significant gang problem in the city.

“We got our crime statistics down to the lowest point we had seen in a while, but unfortunately it’s like anything in life – there are ups and downs, and right now we’re going through an up period,” he said. “The last three years, the whole nation has seen that.”

Chief Landi said the police department is very dedicated and is expanding, including the Criminal Investigation Division.

“Part of it is being able to intervene, hopefully reaching these at-risk individuals,” he said of preventing crime. The department also is working with Family Resources to address needs of victims.

Landi said Boswell answered his own question about why stay – “you’re a believer in Rock Island, and that’s what we need.”

“We need people who are dedicated to Rock Island, who aren’t just gonna give up and move on,” the chief said. “You’re going to help bring us back to where we need to be.”

City with ‘good bones’

Miles Brainard, the city community and economic development director, looks at cities like Rock Island like old historic homes in need of repair, that have “good bones.”

“It’s all still good underneath all of the wear and tear,” he said. “I’m from a similar community. I have worked in a similar community with the same sorts of problems.”

Miles Brainard, the city’s community and economic development director, speaks at the Unplugged meeting at the Stern Center, Jan. 18, 2023 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

Brainard moved to Rock Island in 2017 after being a planner in Fort Dodge, Iowa.

“It seems like things are getting really run down. The good bones are still there,” he said.

“It means something when you have a staff working for a city who actually like it and believe in it,” Brainard said of Rock Island’s veteran employees, many have decades of service.

“I have a lot of positive feelings for Rock Island and someone who’s not from here,” he said. “I think things are actually going in the right direction, though they’ll take time.”

John Gripp, city parks and recreation director, is a lifelong Rock Islander.

“We’re a community-based city and over the years have formed so many public-private partnerships,” he said. “Together, we’ve raised over $1 million in private dollars to put back into our facilities.”

“Our department, like many others, hasn’t seen a lot of tax increase support over many years,” Gripp said. “It’s been critical for us to form these partnerships and I couldn’t be happier to work with the community to do that. That’s my hometown pride, to work with these folks who want to get involved. We share a lot of those concerns.”

Other pressing issues

Several other residents had questions for city staff. Linda Dothard lives near a major hole in the street at 13th Avenue and 13th Street, that she said has been abandoned, asking when that will be fixed.

“It’s been there I don’t know how long, and to me, there’s a problem in the city of Rock Island when someone decides to work on something in the summer, and the next summer it’s still not done,” she said. “It’s like it’s forgotten it’s there.”

Rock Island city leaders answered questions from residents at the meeting Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

Mike Bartels, the city public works director, said he wasn’t familiar with that project.

“It seems strange to open up something like that and not finish it,” he said. “We never want to leave a hole open to traffic concerns and pedestrian concerns. I’m hoping there’s good reasons for that.”

Another resident asked for repairs to 8 ½ Street West in southwest Rock Island, by the Shady Brook subdivision.

Bartels also said he’d check about doing that, which may be suffering from lack of funding.

“There are other worse streets out there and I know that’s not what the resident wants to hear,” he said. “We can’t replace every street. A street like that would cost about a million dollars to be reconstructed. We work on a budget currently.”

The city has about $2.5 million for street repairs every year for all projects, Bartels said.

Rock Island is in the process of acquiring 538 acres of mainly wetlands from RiverStone near Bally’s Casino, for just $1, Brainard said. Some property has development potential for businesses, including right across from the casino.

The long-term goal for the rest of the land is for a nature conservancy, for a wide range of recreational uses, including hunting, he said.

“That is something we hope to do in partnership with another agency,” Brainard said, noting the Rock Island County Forest Preserve. It should be accessible for the public to use, such as duck blinds.

“This land expands our municipal border, and allows the city more developable land,” he said. “There’s also a longer-term economic development goal.”

Capping vape and liquor businesses

One question asked the city to decrease the number of vape shops and liquor license holders.

“We do have an increasing number of vape shops pop up,” Brainard said, leading the city to examine its tobacco retail regulations. The relevant ordinances that date back decades don’t refer to e-cigarettes, he noted.

The Great River Plaza in downtown Rock Island will be renovated under a $7-million revitalization plan of the city and QC Chamber. (photo: Brian Weckerly)

“The first thing to do is better define what these businesses are and make sure we are licensing appropriately, with some reasonable rules about where they can be located,” Brainard said. “The goal here is not to set some arbitrary cap on number of businesses of any kind. That’s never our goal.

“Our goal is to ensure that licensing procedures take into account the welfare of the community,” he said.

Mayor Thoms, who is the city liquor commissioner, said it’s not the city’s goal to reduce liquor licenses, but also ensure they’re not clustered in one area of Rock Island.

“We are trying to make sure we license the correct type of venue,” he said. “You don’t want too many of one thing concentrated in one area. We’re taking a harder look – whether it’s a liquor store, you don’t want them all downtown or on 18th Avenue.”

For more information on city departments, visit the city website.