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The wheels are in motion to create a special service area (SSA) in Rock Island that supporters say will help drive the rebirth of a downtown “on the cusp of revitalization.” But the road to creating a Greater Downtown Rock Island SSA is long and riddled with potholes. It may help smooth the way, backers say, that many property owners – though not all – have agreed to invest more of their own money to bring back the once-thriving city center. The special taxing district is roughly bounded by First and Seventh avenues and 13th and 28th streets. SSA districts can be found throughout Illinois and Iowa (where they are known as Self-Supporting Municipal Improvement Districts or SSMIDs). The districts can be empowered to do things such as pick up litter, plant flowers, provide visitor hospitality, signage, branding and marketing, and business assistance, a Rock Island City staff report said. SSAs are generally paid for by special taxes on property owners within the district. But funding can come from other public and private sources. The Rock Island SSA calls for the city to make annual financial contributions to the Downtown Rock Island place management organization. In addition, four organizations outside the SSA boundaries – Augustana College, Bally’s Quad Cities, MetroLINK and Modern Woodmen of America – have volunteered to back that organization if the SSA is established. On Monday, Aug. 8, the Rock Island City Council officially launched the lengthy process to create a Greater Downtown Rock Island SSA. And aldermen were expected to vote today, Aug. 22, to advance the proposal to initiate it. If approved, a 60-day waiting period will kick in leading up to another public hearing. That hearing tentatively set for Thursday, Oct. 24, would be followed by a 60-day period to allow public objections to be submitted. Then another ordinance would be created to initiate the SSA and the process would begin again, pushing the area’s creation well into 2023. Clearly then it’s much too early to handicap the outcome, but backers say they are optimistic about the SSA’s chances after the 5-1 council vote on Aug. 8 to begin the process. Among the yes votes was Fourth Ward Alderwoman Jenni Swanson. “I support and voted for the SSA in downtown Rock Island because I look at our surrounding river cities that are thriving with their downtown SSAs in Illinois and SSMIDs in Iowa,” Ms. Swanson said. The SSA will “provide a vehicle for downtown property owners to invest in and decide how funds are used in the downtown area to benefit their businesses and patrons,” she said. She added that it will “be overseen by a committee of downtown business owners, residents and their alderperson. They will decide how their funds are to be spent; who better to decide than the people who live and work there?” Ms. Swanson added: “By voting yes to the SSA, I am investing in the success and growth of our downtown.” So is the Quad Cities Chamber’s Jack Cullen, the director of the Downtown Rock Island placemaking partnership, who has been helping steer the city’s downtown revitalization effort since 2021. “Plain and simple, the SSA will pump more resources into maintaining, programming and promoting the assets and amenities we have in downtown Rock Island and create a strong advocate for the downtown business community,” Mr. Cullen said. “While it starts with better stewardship, we believe the unique services, activities and improvements this organization aims to provide in partnership with the City of Rock Island will lead to future business and residential growth as well.” He added, with “the work we’re doing to set up an SSA and public-private place management organization to better maintain, program and promote the downtown area; and the millions of dollars in private investments being made to develop the new federal building and YWCA, among other projects, Downtown Rock Island is on the cusp of a new era of revitalization.” For Nicole Watson-Lam, owner of Ms. BriMani’s Hair & Beauty Supply and The Urban Reserve downtown, the SSA effort is a beacon of hope. “I got involved when Jack (Cullen) came to me with the idea of an SSA and I felt like it was a light at the end of a very long, dark tunnel,” the steering committee’s vice chair said. “I am a lifelong resident and I have always been an advocate for the success of the City of Rock Island. I was a business owner in the west end for 20+ years and moved my business downtown in November 2020,” Ms. Watson-Lam said. “I am not only financially invested but I am emotionally invested, as are a lot of small business owners.” Owners of larger businesses also are leading the charge, including Arron Sutherland, chair of the downtown steering committee and president and CEO of Illinois Casualty Co. The company has been downtown since its inception and its Rock Island commitment is so deep it built a new downtown building to house a growing staff. “I got involved because our company has been in downtown Rock Island for over 70 years,” said Mr. Sutherland. “It is part of our company culture to be a contributing member of our community, and I believe actively working to improve the downtown will have a tremendous positive impact on the entire Rock Island community.” In the short term, Mr. Sutherland said he hopes the SSA will provide a targeted funding mechanism to address these key needs: safety, cleanliness and business attraction. “In the long-term, I hope the SSA leads to a downtown management entity that will give a voice to the residents, business owners and property owners downtown, allowing them to contribute and drive the building of a vibrant, family-friendly, walkable downtown that makes everyone proud.” Not every business backs the SSA, however. At the Aug. 8 council meeting, Caitlin Russell and Jeff Eirinberg, developers of the new federal courthouse building underway at 18th Street and Fourth Avenue, shared concerns. They worried that their new 60,000-square-foot building would be one of the largest tax-paying properties in the area and increased property taxes from the SSA would be paid from project investors, not from the federal government. When asked about SSA opposition, Mr. Sutherland said, “I understand their concern, I share the reluctance to ever increase taxes. I would say that I truly believe that if a difference is going to be made downtown, it must be led by the stakeholders downtown. This solution may not be perfect, and there is a lot of work to be done. In my opinion it is the right first step forward, and an essential need for our future.” The ordinance also was opposed by Rock Island’s Third Ward Alderwoman Judith Gilbert. She said on Aug. 8 she was voting no to give voice to the majority of downtown businesses that hadn’t been heard from. “It is not fair or right to vote on something as impactful as an additional tax burden during a recession without the inclusion of everyone in the process which has been going on for months, years now,” she said. Proponents argue, however, that an SSA is set up to ensure stakeholder inclusion. “I believe property owners also see it as an opportunity to take revitalization matters into their own hands, have a dedicated organization to advocate for their needs and stabilize and hopefully grow their investment in their business/property,” Mr. Cullen said. “Should the SSA be approved later this year, property owners will make up the bulk of the downtown organization’s board, giving them control over how and on what services and activities the dollars are spent.” The proposal also isn’t to immediately create a permanent SSA downtown. If approved, it would be in effect for five years and then evaluated to determine if it should continue after the trial period. “The success of revitalizing downtown only starts with an SSA, it will be dependent on continued engagement and effort from both the public and the private sector,” Mr. Sutherland added. “We have a unique opportunity to capitalize on recent investments downtown, we must put a mechanism in place for long-term sustainability and management of those improvements.”