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Visitors to downtown Rock Island don’t have to look too far these days to see evidence of the cleaner, safer downtown public and private sector leaders say they believe is poised for a long-sought revitalization. That “cleaner and safer” campaign is a top priority of the Rock Island Downtown Alliance, a place management agency captained by Executive Director Jack Cullen. The Alliance was created through a partnership between the Quad Cities Chamber of Commerce, the City of Rock Island and property owners in a 65-block greater-downtown area, which is roughly bounded by First to Seventh avenues and 15th to 28th streets. Clean and safe streets is the consensus priority of the 215 property owners in that area who agreed last year to tax themselves via a special service area (SSA) to make that and more happen, Mr. Cullen said in an interview with the QCBJ. Since early September, the face of the clean and safe effort has been downtown Operations Manager De’Andre Robinson. The uniformed Alliance leader, who beat out two dozen other candidates for the job, has been navigating the downtown on a utility vehicle conspicuously wrapped in the alliance’s distinctive logo. His travels included making 126 business contacts between Sept. 8 and Sept. 26. Helping him in that cause going forward will be uniformed Cleaning Ambassadors. “We’re trying to create a clean, safe, welcoming downtown to encourage private investment to encourage better stewardship of the area,” Mr. Cullen said. “So in addition to those cleaning and maintenance services – everything from litter pickup to weed abatement, graffiti and other vandalism removal – we’re also focused on our mobile safety patrol and outreach to members of the street population and ensuring those folks have the resources or at least are connected with the resources that can assist them.” Mr. Robinson, who for years was a case manager at downtown Rock Island’s Christian Care, is well equipped to identify and work with the city’s street population, Mr. Cullen said. “It’s a really exciting time,” Mr. Cullen said. “We spent two years creating a place management organization dedicated to the daily needs of the downtown area.” He added, “We knew that there was a proven path forward toward revitalizing downtown and also management of downtown and so we had a goal in mind and now we’re here.” The Alliance and its partners chose to herald their “boots on the ground” clean and safe campaign at a packed launch party Tuesday, Oct. 3, at downtown’s Huckleberry’s Pizza. Quad Cities Chamber CEO LaDrina Wilson was among the celebrants. “One of the things that’s incredibly important to the work that we do is quality of place, and that is one of our pillars in our strategic plan,” she said. “And to have the partnership and the relationship with the City of Rock Island where they trust the chamber to work through the Rock Island Downtown Alliance to create a vibrant space, a multi-generational space that people of all walks of life can enjoy that is part of our Quad Cities communities, is incredibly important,” she told the QCBJ. “I’ve often said that people don’t choose a community to live in just for their job. They need to know what kind of quality of life that they’re going to have when they’re not at work,” she added. “So if we don’t have strong downtowns, if we don’t have strong restaurants, small shops, then people won’t choose to be here.” Also important, Ms. Wilson said, are the Rock Islanders who have a strong sense of pride in their community. “One person can only do so much but when you have people every single day when their feet hit the ground they’re supporting that civic duty to provide that sense of belonging from the trash cleanup to even supporting the people on the streets … it is transformative for a community.” For Rock Island Mayor Mike Thoms, the party was a chance to celebrate the stakeholders, especially the 215 property owners who agreed to tax themselves to create and fund the SSA. “It is a great investment that you’re willing and wanting to make,” he told the crowd. “It really takes a lot of people to make these kinds of things happen so I once again thank you very much for that,” he added. He also lauded the public–private partnership that includes the city, the Quad Cities Chamber and property owners for making it happen. And he credited multiple funders for making it work. “We were able to get a grant from the State of Illinois,” the mayor said. “We were able to use TIF money. We were able to use COVID money and put this together and leverage it to continue to raise money to be able to do this project.” The alliance’s efforts also go hand-in-hand with the city’s ambitious $7.4 million downtown infrastructure and placemaking investment. “We’ve talked about projects like this since the 2015 (downtown) plan it’s based off of, but haven’t been able to implement a lot of it because of lack of funding and lack of concentration and focus on the project,” Mr. Thoms said. In addition, the new effort will be sustainable thanks to the Alliance and the SSA. “It’s a great day,” the mayor added, particularly when you consider ongoing construction projects downtown that include a new YWCA and federal courthouse. The latter also will mean “high-paying jobs going into downtown Rock Island to help support businesses like this,” he told the Huckleberry’s crowd. “It’s just beginning. We’re going to see this thing grow.” Aaron Sutherland, chairman of the SSA board, was recruited to sell the downtown special service area. When Mr. Cullen first came to Mr. Sutherland’s downtown Illinois Casualty Company office to talk about an SSA, he was skeptical. “So first I asked him to repeat himself: ‘You’re asking me to support a tax?’” Mr. Sutherland recalled. After Mr. Cullen “walked me through the process and quite honestly with his passion and his fire to see Rock Island thrive sold me on the idea of the SSA.” Illinois Casualty Company’s “roots are here and we want to see that investment grow. It was that simple,” Mr. Sutherland said. What is the Alliance? The organization is driven by a 13-member board of directors who govern and guide the use of the SSA and funds collected for the organization. The Alliance is an entity of the chamber. It’s modeled after the chamber-led Downtown Davenport Partnership and the Downtown Bettendorf Organization. “It’s a great partnership because we benefit from having the entire chamber team to support our work downtown,” said Mr. Cullen, who is employed through the chamber. The Alliance also works with the city and City Manager Todd Thompson is the lone permanent member of its board. It’s fueled by funds generated through SSA taxpayers with additional funding from the city. Contributions also come from generous businesses that Mr. Cullen said “have a vested interest in the success of downtown Rock Island.” They include Bally’s Casino Rock Island, Modern Woodmen of America, Crawford Co. and MetroLINK. In addition to clean, safe streets, other pillars of the Alliance are supporting existing business downtown and ensuring that they have the resources necessary to continue to grow. It’s attacking that goal with the help of such private sector groups as the Development Association of Rock Island (DARI) and the City of Rock Island Economic Development team and city tools. The latter include the Property Enhancement Program (PEP) and the Growing Rock Island Together (GRIT) program. What’s in the works? Coming from the Alliance early as 2024, Mr. Cullen said, is a new capital improvement grant program to supplement those programs. It could focus on exterior improvements and projects to enhance curb appeal such as signage, awnings, sidewalk and curb replacement or other improvements. The alliance already has budgeted $45,000 for the first year and a panel of board members is working to develop it. That number may change year to year, as will the group’s overall budget depending on what’s needed. “If there’s a huge need for grant dollars, we may adjust the budget next year to account for that,” he said. The Alliance also will work with downtown property owners again this year on special events and programming. Under consideration is an enhanced clean and safe services agreement that outlines additional services the Alliance will provide in partnership with Rock Island Police to provide increased mobile safety patrols. Once approved, mobile police on foot or on bicycles will be highly visible around the SSA. The downtown alliance also is equipped to help business owners who are impacted by property challenges. For example, the alliance helped the operators of Spellbound when they were evacuated in June due to safety concerns at their 217 17th St. location, Mr. Cullen said. The organization helped the first-floor business set up classes at another location as well as set up a booth at Chalk Art Fest while work was being done on that building. “I think the big picture, what’s also exciting about this time, is that there are major funds that have been secured to really jumpstart the revitalization of downtown,” he added. For example, that $7.4 million set aside for downtown infrastructure, streetscaping and more. The Alliance will offer advice on those improvements and will work “closely with the city as we get closer to breaking ground on the projects so we’re making sure that property owners and business owners know when certain streets are going to be reconstructed.” That major injection of funding, the downtown organization and the major private investment being made downtown “makes this really exciting time for downtown Rock Island,” he added. “Our goal at the end of the day is to encourage private investment, improve public spaces and enhance overall quality of life for downtown workers, residents, and visitors.” Mr. Cullen ended the Oct. 3 party with a call to action to attendees “to start speaking positively about the path that we’re all going down together.” He added, “We see you all as influencers and ambassadors for downtown and now ambassadors and influencers for the downtown alliance.”