Quad Cities hopes to keep I-74 bridge momentum going

In the afterglow of the Interstate 74 Bridge celebration, Quad Cities leaders are already looking for new ways to harness the collaborative energy created by that 25-year-long project.

The Quad Cities Regional Business Journal asked a dozen business and community leaders to weigh in on the state of regional cooperation, and where it should go from here.

“Collaboration is in the DNA of the QC region,” said Paul Rumler, president and CEO of the Quad Cities Chamber. That wasn’t always the case, however. In the midst of the 1980s farm crisis, for example, leaders joined in trying to build a new regional Quad Cities Vision for the Future. Later, Quad Citians were told that they were Joined By A River and Better Together. Still, cooperation came hard.

Augustana College President Steven Bahls said, “Regional thinking is much stronger than when I moved to the Quad Cities 19 years ago. When I arrived it was common that leaders in one city or one county would plan how to gain at the expense of another city or county.”

“Today, almost without exception, community leaders talk about working together to improve the Quad Cities as a whole – recognizing that we are one region,” said Mr. Bahls, who also was one of the trio of leaders who chaired the Q2030 regional visioning effort.

Mr. Bahls called the 2010 merger of the Iowa and Illinois chambers the “biggest step” toward a more regional mindset. “The merger was a landmark event that changed the thinking of the business community and so many others,” said Mr. Bahls, who also was the former board president of the Illinois Quad-Cities Chamber. “Instead of thinking we are two states competing with each other, we are now proud that we are one region that prospers when we all prosper. With the chambers merging we started to think big with plans like Q2030.”

Added Kent Pilcher, president of Estes Construction, Davenport, and also a Q2030 tri-chair: “There had been some momentum and we’d like to believe the regional vision initiated by the Regional Opportunities Council, Q2030, helped accelerate the effort. It seemed to be the first time a great number of organizations came together to express that we were better off thinking regionally, as a group, rather than parochially.” The group has grown from 145 organizations to well over 200.

To keep the momentum going, Denise Bulat, executive director of the Bi-State Regional Commission, said Quad Citians should “remember our similarities and build trust from there, finding a place where we can meet in the middle.”

Joe Slavens, president and CEO of Northwest Bank & Trust Co. and a Q2030 tri-chair, said, “Quad Cities regional cooperation is at an all-time high, but it moves at a snail’s pace relative to other successful regions and the pace we need it to move to create transformational change.”

“The good news is that regional thinking has progressed from a nice idea to the dominant paradigm,” he said. “This means that so many things happen regionally without us even thinking about it. The silent and invisible hand of regionalism is constantly at work.”

To build on the current momentum, some leaders advocate creating a permanent regional body that would raise funds for Quad Cities projects.

“The new bridge was easy for the same reason it was hard,” Mr. Slavens said. “Most of the money came from elsewhere. And while getting state and federal money is hard, it’s easy for everyone to get behind a beneficial project someone else pays for. And while I am super proud of the new bridge, we can’t wait another 25 years for someone else to make another payment towards our future,” he added.

“Again, the solution to building regional momentum is simple to state and hard to implement. It’s about us aligning significant amounts of our own regional resources behind regional priorities,” Mr. Slavens said. “That means either generating new resources or redirecting existing ones. It also means creating a structure to do that. That’s why I am in favor of creating a sustainable regional planning and funding mechanism.”

That also is on Mr. Pilcher’s wish list. “If we could establish a regional funding model in both Rock Island County and Scott County that could leverage the monies available from the private foundations, we could have a significant amount of annual funding that isn’t available to us now to make an impact that would affect the quality of life for many generations to come in our region,” he said.

Pat Eikenberry, vice president of civil engineering at Quad Cities-based IMEG Corp., added, “For many years, IMEG has supported the creation of a metropolitan taxing authority for the entire Quad Cities — Illinois and Iowa together: one regional government that acts in the best interest of all, funding all of the Quad Cities’ cultural resources, sporting facilities, the Quad City International Airport, and infrastructure.”

One way to grow cooperation, Rock Island educator Yolanda Grandberry-Pugh said, is to be sure it is visible to community members on both sides of the Mississippi. “I do not believe that most members of the Quad Cities community are aware of what is taking place,” she said. She learned about it as a board member of United Way and from organizations including the Rock Island and Davenport NAACP and the Rock Island Library board, she said.

“Community leaders should invite members of the community to the table who represent all communities in the Quad Cities, especially those who have been traditionally left out, intentionally and/or unintentionally,” she said. “Seasoned and young members of our communities need to connect, talk, and create, together.”

Increased cooperation also is necessary if the Quad Cities is to capture some of the large pool of government infrastructure and COVID-19 relief funding, leaders said.

“There are two buckets of money flowing into the Quad Cities,” Mr. Eikenberry said. “The bucket allocated to cities and counties is not competitive. The other bucket, from the infrastructure bill, is approximately $1.2 trillion and includes an estimated $550 billion above baseline spending. This is our opportunity.”

That money can only be spent on infrastructure, he said. “Therefore, the Quad Cities region must agree on priority projects and constantly lobby area legislators in both Illinois and Iowa to let them know what we need. Any local dollars spent on preliminary planning and process will be viewed favorably.”

Washington still is working on finalizing the federal investment in education, workforce, retention and housing, he said. “However, prioritization, planning, and implementation processes should be being discussed now, at a regional level, not just local.”

The Rev. Dwight Ford, executive director of Project Now, said he’d like that money to be used in three areas: attacking the affordable housing crisis in the Quad Cities, creating an economy that works for everyone, and a coordinated effort for a youth employment pipeline (16-19-year-olds) that is based upon industry needs and personal interest.

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