Soon after the first anniversary of becoming just second director of Davenport’s Hilltop Campus Village (HCV), Molly Otting-Carlson had a big day Thursday, Aug. 18.

She met here with a senior officer of Main Street America and a co-star of the hit cable History show “American Pickers,” at a key location on HCV’s southern border.

Robbie Wolfe of “American Pickers” talks with Molly Otting-Carlson of Hilltop Campus Village and Kathy La Plante of Main Street America at his service shop in Davenport Aug. 18, 2022 (photos by Jonathan Turner).

Hilltop (founded in 2009) is the only Main Street organization in Scott County. Main Street America is a national organization that seeks to revitalize downtowns through preservation-based economic development, and this visit was part of a partnership with Main Street Iowa.

Kathy La Plante, Senior Program Officer and Director of Coordinating Program Services at Main Street America, toured the Hilltop area — which stretches from 5th Street to St. Ambrose University, encompassing Harrison, Main and Brady Streets. Otting-Carlson also met with Robbie Wolfe — who costars with his brother Mike on “American Pickers” and maintains his shop of antique Americana treasures at 330 5th St.

The former Carl Cleve & Sons auto body shop, 330 5th St., Davenport, is owned by Wolfe.

“It’s a big deal,” Otting-Carlson said of Hilltop membership in Main Street. “You get people like Kathy coming to your community, which means everything. Because when you look at something through the same lens – all day, every single day – why would you look up? She’s a different lens and that’s what we need. Plus, she brings 30 years of experience.”

The goal of the Main Street Iowa Partnership visit is to give the local Main Street Board of Directors, Main Street staff, and other community partners a chance to celebrate the progress and accomplishments of the past year; show off the work of the local Main Street program to the national Main Street program, engage local community leadership with a national Main Street representative, learn about national Main Street revitalization trends occurring throughout the country, and gather tips to improve the local Main Street program’s effectiveness.

Main Street Iowa works in partnership with Main Street America to identify the local programs that meet 10 national performance standards. Evaluation criteria determines the communities that are building meaningful and sustainable revitalization programs and include standards such as, fostering strong public-private partnerships, documenting programmatic progress, and actively revitalizing historic buildings.

 “The ability for a local Main Street program to consistently incorporate fresh ideas and new leadership perspectives into the revitalization process helps ensure a vibrant future for the community’s economic opportunities,” said Michael Wagler, Main Street Iowa State Coordinator. “This visit focused on partnerships and enhancing local communication that are the foundation for a strong local development effort.”

Working across America 40 years

Main Street America has been helping revitalize older and historic commercial districts for 40 years,

Today, it is a network of more than 1,600 neighborhoods and communities, rural and urban, who share both a commitment to place and to building stronger communities through preservation-based economic development.

Since 1980, communities participating in the program have leveraged more than $89.6 billion in new public and private investment, generated 687,321 net new jobs and 154,435 net new businesses, and rehabilitated more than 303,836 buildings, according to an HCV release. Main Street America is a program of the nonprofit National Main Street Center, a subsidiary of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

La Plante with Wolfe and a Ronald McDonald statue (Iowa’s first McDonald’s was on Brady Street) on Aug. 18, 2022.

Main Street Iowa hired Main Street America to visit all 55 of its organizations in the state, over two years. La Plante said she has two more weeks of visits left in September.

Main Street America partners with corporations to provide grants to chapters, including from T Mobile, American Express and AARP.

“We’ve been working at the federal level as well, trying to get bigger allocations,” she said. “We’re a nonprofit organization; we’re not government.” Last year, Main Street gave out about $10 million, La Plante said.

Main Street Iowa is a program of the Iowa Economic Development Authority’s Iowa Downtown Resource Center. Main Street Iowa works to improve the social and economic well-being of Iowa’s communities by assisting selected communities to capitalize on the unique identity, assets and character of their historic commercial district.

Hilltop Campus Village, formed in 2009, is the only Main Street organization in Scott County.

Main Street Iowa also provides technical assistance services to communities who made the revitalization of their downtown or traditional commercial district an economic development priority

Adding art to beautify the gateway

Wolfe wants to put $300,000 into new murals along the railroad bridge retaining wall on 5th Street (across from his service shop), including working with popular QC muralist Atlanta Dawn.

“That’s nothing in comparison with what the city has spent – when you look at tourism dollars,” he said. “With the railroad, the city had the railroad up against the wall and could have said, we want you to fix this wall and want you guys to pay to paint that. They would have said, OK; they just gave then $10 million.”

Part of the 5th Street retaining wall along the railroad bridge (also known as “the truck-eating bridge”) in Davenport.

The city council recently approved getting $10 million from the planned Canadian Pacific Railway’s acquisition of Kansas City Southern Railway. Earlier, the Davenport mayor and council warned that the merger would triple the amount of trains traveling through the city on a daily basis.

There were concerns of harm to infrastructure, nearby neighborhoods and Davenport’s downtown and riverfront areas.

“We have nothing that connects the gateway of Hilltop to downtown,” Otting-Carlson said.

“This is literally the gateway into downtown,” Wolfe said of the mostly blank 5th Street wall along the bridge (which has some colorful Metro Arts murals). “Why they put an octopus on there, I have no freaking clue.”

The Quad City Arts Metro Arts program has put up murals along the wall.

“At one time, we had 64 cigar manufacturers in this town, which was one of the biggest in the United States,” he said, noting the QC should have a cigar festival.

“We could do an antique thing that goes all the way down 5th Street,” Wolfe said. “I can’t do it; I don’t have the time.”

Wolfe has stored his antique collection (including vintage cars and signs) here the past 18 months, since he bought the former Carl Cleve & Sons, an old auto body shop that started in 1922.

“It’s a long time for one family to generate all the way through that – remarkable, actually,” he said.

He’s not open for public retail hours – he said, when he’s here every few weeks, the door is always open. Wolfe loves being on “American Pickers” now with Mike.

Wolfe’s Americana collection includes a 1941 wood-paneled Mercury (center) and a 1964-68 Ford (right).

“You don’t have to go to work every day if you appreciate what you do,” Robbie said. “I love coming into my shop every day. I love talking about history. But I can get more kids involved in it this way.”

“We eventually most likely will open this up in the next year or two,” he said of the shop.

“People drive right by it,” Otting-Carlson said. “If it’s shut, he’s filming.”

“He’ll let you come in and have it for events,” she said. “Every single thing in here is picked from the show.”

“It’s one of those things – my grandfather was a picker back in the day; my Dad was a picker, not to the extent my brother and I are,” Robbie Wolfe said.

Using art to attract

“I love everything you’re thinking about here. I love the idea about the art on the wall out there, as a sort of economic driver for the Hilltop,” Kathy La Plante of Main Street said.

“It brings people in downtown,” Wolfe said. “If you look at what’s going on in Detroit right now, it’s that. It’s huge and it’s helping the economy out there. Ford is even stepping up and refurbishing a lot of that stuff – the old history of the downtown.”

“It just makes it a more unique place,” Kathy said. “People come here to find the most unique elements of the city.”

Main Street America is giving out $50,000 T Mobile grants, including for public art.

The blank wall along 5th Street with Davenport City Hall (at left) in the background).

Hilltop wants to have the wall painted because it’s ugly, and Wolfe will come up with a design, Otting-Carlson said.

“This is the original African-American neighborhood; we’ll have a new MLK Park here,” at 5th and Brady, she said. “The things that don’t exist, but remind us where we came from, will be the other kind of theme of the mural. Instead of parrots and octopuses, as pretty as they are, they may be covered with new. Because they just don’t say anything about the neighborhood.”

Hilltop hopes to have the wall painted over the next year, Otting-Carlson said.

“It’s just a concrete wall now. Why doesn’t the city want to celebrate its history?” Wolfe said. “What better thing to do than a five-city block pictorial history of downtown? Make this a walking tour.”

It could be not just the story of Davenport, but the whole QC, including John Deere and the Bettendorf Company.

A rear view of the 1960s Ford in Wolfe’s Davenport shop.

“I’d like to see this painted, and would take a year to a year and a half to paint the entire thing,” Wolfe said. “The biggest thing this needs to be is to be cohesive.”

“We’re envisioning ourselves as the gateway to downtown,” Otting-Carlson said. “They’re rocking and rolling and doing great. When they’re great, we’re great, and it’s starting to come up the hill.”

“Number one, it makes it more inviting,” La Plante said of public art. “A dirty retaining wall isn’t exactly appealing.”

“It’s making the district more attractive – celebrate and also capture he history,” she said. “It also can be an engagement. You can invite the community to help paint. The community takes ownership of it; it prevents graffiti.”

“It starts to open things up and celebrates,” Kathy said. “We’re protecting places like this, which has a history in the building as well.”

HCV plans to apply for a grant from the state of Iowa, to convert the former Rafael’s Emporium, 7th and Harrison into apartments and multi-use, with $100,000 through the Iowa Economic Development Authority.

For more information on Hilltop, visit its website. See a gallery of Wolfe’s prized picks in Davenport below.