Exclusive: QC leaders get sneak peek at long-awaited Amazon center

New Davenport center delivers soft opening Wednesday

Amazon Robotics
A ribbon-cutting ceremony is held Wednesday, Oct 25, 2023, for the new Amazon Robotics Fulfillment Center in Davenport. CREDIT DAVE THOMPSON

Amazon opened the doors to the Quad Cities’ long-awaited Robotics Fulfillment Center today to offer a sneak peek to key local business leaders who helped make the project – once code-named Operation Scrabble – a reality.

The soft opening on Wednesday, Oct. 25, came less than two weeks after the world’s largest online retailer began the phased-in launch of its new distribution facility in the Eastern Iowa Industrial Center (EIIC) in north Davenport. The event, which also featured a Quad Cities Chamber Ambassadors’ ribbon cutting, was hosted by the MLI1 Center’s General Manager Nate Rudy.

He and other Amazon leaders also provided the project’s key players with information and private tours of the center, which like other Amazon facilities takes its name from the region’s airport designation. In this case, the MLI refers to the Quad Cities International Airport in Moline,  while the No. 1 signifies that this is the first robotics fulfillment center in this region. It is one of 105 Robotics Fulfillment Centers operated by Amazon.

“Needless to say we are very excited to be here and to be a great partner in the community,” Mr. Rudy told the small gathering of public and private economic development leaders that included a pair of Quad Cities Regional Business Journal staffers. 

“After breaking ground a little over two years ago, our leadership and support teams started work on site in September and we have received a warm welcome from the community,” Mr. Rudy said.

“Ten days ago, we welcomed our first group of new hires and will welcome over 500 new hires before the end of October,” he added. 

The newly constructed six-story facility represents the latest generation of Amazon Robotics Fulfillment Centers, he said. It covers over 2.3 million square feet, six floors and more than 12 miles of conveyance. 

Local leaders lauded

In addition to the center, Davenport Mayor Mike Matson also celebrated the collection of invited city and regional economic development and business leaders in the room who helped make the project possible. 

“There are so many people, as usual, who are involved in making something big like this happen,” the mayor said. “The partnerships, the teamwork and collaboration with our city staff, Corri Spiegel and her folks, with the chamber folks, with other business folks, our county, everybody working together to bring a Scrabble piece together.”

In addition to the Quad Cities Chamber’s economic development leaders, Mr. Matson also singled out the Greater Davenport Redevelopment Corp. (GRDC) and businesses including MidAmerican Energy Co. and Iowa American Water, which were invited to today’s event.

Mr. Matson recalled being surprised back in 2020 to hear about the then-mysterious “Project Scrabble” effort to lure Amazon to the Quad Cities. “And here we are standing in a facility, a world-renowned business that is bringing jobs again to Quad Cities and specifically to Davenport,” he added.

Amazon Robotics
Mara Downing, at left, vice president of global brand management and corporate communications for Deere & Co., and the Quad Cities Chamber of Commerce board chair, attends the soft opening for the Amazon Robotics Fulfillment Center. CREDIT DAVE THOMPSON

Also among those celebrating the opening was Quad Cities Chamber Board Chairman Mara Downing. “This is really an exciting day for our entire community and we’re thrilled at John Deere to welcome another Fortune 100 company to this community,” added Ms. Downing, who is vice president of Global Brand and Communications for the Moline-based Deere & Co. 

“I’m glad that Amazon sees the benefits of being centrally located in a Midwest community like the Quad Cities and Davenport,” she said. “I hope that you enjoy the Quad Cities as much as John Deere has over the past 175 years.”

Ms. Downing also lauded the many partners who worked together on the project and called Amazon “an iconic brand that does incredible things beyond just creating jobs.”

Pay, benefits ‘incredible’

It also gives back to the community through volunteerism and by providing “incredible benefits packages to its employees,” she said.

Mr. Rudy, who has worked for Amazon for 10 years, said his company is proud to offer top pay, comprehensive benefits including health, vision and dental insurance from Day One, 401Ks and 23 weeks of paid leave for new parents. He also touted its program that helps pay employees’ tuition costs as well as the mental health services it provides to employees and their households.

As for volunteers, he said, employees of the new center already have been out in force to do good at work in the Quad Cities community. 

“To date we participated in over 74 volunteer events at 30 unique local organizations like Humility Homes and Services, ImpactLife, the Salvation Army and the River Bend Food Bank,” he said. In all, Mr. Rudy said, the MLI1 team already has logged a total of 3,500 volunteer hours.

Those employees also are busy launching the first phase in the building’s opening.

Full staff goal in 2024

Like many construction projects, the new center’s opening was slowed by supply chain and other issues. But Mr. Rudy told the QCBJ during a short interview following the ribbon cutting that the timeline moving forward will have the center up to full staff and operational in 2024.

The company began welcoming new employees on Sunday, Oct. 15. “In the first phase we will have in excess of 500 employees and we only have access to about 20% of the building right now,” Mr. Rudy said. 

That includes a group of new hires who were going through orientation in a nearby training room today. Eventually, the facility will operate a total of six shifts that will overlap, a company official said. 

Also due to the size of the staff and the reduced space right now, he said the center is not shipping products directly to customers. “We’re receiving new products from vendors and we are shipping that product that is ready to be stored to a facility that is fully operational that can pick, pack and ship those items,’ Mr. Rudy said.

“As we get into 2024, we will slowly phase into storing product in the building on the robotics floors and eventually picking, packing and shipping those items and our expectation is that there will be a grand opening celebration in the first quarter of 2024,” he said.

Then, once the full operation is up and running, MLI1 will be a sortable facility that will be ready to process “anything and everything that is around 18 inches or less,” he said.

“We’re not just going to be servicing only the QC community, our packages will go regionally as well, so we will continue to grow beyond 1,000 employees,” he added.

What will be in those packages?

“When we’re looking at the inventory in the facility, you could have laundry detergent, you could have a pair of jeans, you could have a purse, really all kinds of different products under the sun,” Mr. Rudy said.

Safety an Amazon priority

Regardless of what they are delivering, safety is paramount, he added. Amazon Centers like the one in the Quad Cities use robots to do simple tasks in order to reduce strain on employees and the risk of injury. Those machines do repetitive motions such as reaching, bending or climbing ladders to access inventory items or pushing heavy carts or trolleys between areas, he said. “This allows employees to be assigned to other tasks that carry a lower risk of injury.”

Going forward, hiring will continue to be a focus for the organization, Mr. Rudy said. Potential workers can apply in person at the MLI1 Recruitment Center inside Amazon’s new 2022 Research Parkway site in Davenport. Job seekers also can visit amazon.com/jobs and search for the Davenport location. 

Mr. Rudy said he also anticipates more hiring events like the one in September at the Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds in Davenport. “I don’t have exact numbers but hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people showed up for the initial hiring event,” he added. 

The robotics center’s operation also benefits from experienced Amazon employees who have joined the leadership team. 

Among them is Kyle Stratford, the assistant manager of MLI1, who also was among the speakers at today’s ribbon-cutting. He shared some of the features of the facility including the 3,600 “Roomba-like robots” that will help QC Amazon employees get the products to customers. He also highlighted one of the most expensive pieces of equipment in the facility: the  CartonWrap 1000.

As for those Quad Cities locals who are already at work helping the Amazon leadership team launch MLI1, Mr. Rudy joked he’s been able to “leverage those folks for great food recommendations.”

The new center’s GM and his wife and two children clearly are fans of the Quad Cities cuisine. “I have not had a bad meal,” he told the QCBJ. 

My family likes the mom and pop sort of opportunity to check out new and different food businesses and we’re not ones that will necessarily seek out the chains and so there’s a lot of that in the community,” he said.

MLI1 By the Numbers:

According to Amazon, the Davenport Robotics Fulfillment center features:

  • 2.3 million square feet or 40 football fields of space.
  • 12 miles of conveyance.
  • 19 miles of wire.
  • 28,500 sprinkler heads.
  • 8,000 light fixtures.
  • 10,200 tons of structural steel.
  • 59,000 cubic yards of concrete – 3,000 CY less than the Empire State Building.

(QCBJ Content Editor Dave Thompson contributed to this report.) 

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