Special Service Area goal: Revitalize downtown Rock Island

The Rock Island City Council is considering a request from downtown Rock Island property owners seeking to revitalize the downtown business district through creation of a Special Service Area (SSA) in partnership with a new Quad Cities Chamber place management organization.

The move would enable property owners to fund and govern enhanced services, activities and improvements in partnership with the city. Enhanced services could include beautification and maintenance; boots-on-the-ground hospitality and troubleshooting; façade and interior improvement grants; business attraction and retention; marketing and advertising, according to the chamber.

Under such programs, property owners within a district tax essentially themselves to benefit the entire area. Through an SSA, extra services are paid for by a levy on all taxable parcels within the district’s contiguous boundaries. Those funds are restricted to improving the business and cultural environment of the area, and property owners on the SSA’s board would help guide specific use of the funds. The Downtown Rock Island Steering Committee’s five-year proposal would establish a public-private partnership with the City of Rock Island. 

“We are willing to put in more of our own money to invest in the downtown. It will help our businesses and properties thrive, and our community as a whole,” said Nicole Watson-Lam, the steering committee’s vice chair and owner of Ms. BriMani’s Hair & Beauty Supply and The Urban Reserve.

Committee member Jon Keim opened Huckleberry’s 30 years ago. Mr. Keim, who later purchased the building and lives above the restaurant, said when business and property owners and the city share a vision and work together, the downtown is successful.

“There will be stewardship, a day-to-day vested interest in the greater downtown. There will be a focus on the streets, it’ll be extra eyes and boots-on-the-ground, collaboration and marketing. With all of that, the greater downtown will have more reach and more value, and I see that lifting everyone,” Mr. Keim said. “It will cost us a little more day-to-day, but it is pennies on the dollar when you consider the value to your business or your property. The future, that is what we are all excited about, and not just our future, but that of our neighbors.”

In August, if the city council approves the Downtown Rock Island Steering Committee’s requests, presented Monday, July 25, it will initiate a four-month process that could end in a council decision late this year.

As of Monday, the proposed SSA had received endorsements by the owners of 120 parcels of land, representing about one-third of the total value of the proposed downtown area – roughly between First and Seventh avenues and 13th and 28th streets.

In addition, four neighboring organizations outside the SSA boundaries – Augustana College, Bally’s Quad Cities, MetroLINK and Modern Woodmen of America – have voluntarily committed to financially support the proposed place management organization if an SSA is established.

Arron Sutherland, chair of the Downtown Rock Island Steering Committee and president/CEO, Illinois Casualty Company, said the greater downtown has much potential. 

“There are challenges, and we can overcome those, but it requires a directed effort, and it is going to take work to get there. I want the greater downtown to be vibrant, family friendly, and most of all, unique,” he said.

Mr. Sutherland said he is not alone. “There is excitement and an entrepreneurial spirit kicking in. People are saying, ‘Yes, I want to get on board with this initiative. I want to put some skin in the game. Let’s do this.’ I’ve really seen that Rock Island spirit coming out,” he said.

“If the SSA is approved by the city council later this year, all property owners within the boundary will have a say in the programs created, projects funded and how they are carried out. They can share their creative ideas and concerns and work together to find solutions and build momentum,” Mr. Sutherland added. “I became sold on the SSA when I learned I would have a voice in the decisions. We can give that voice to the downtown.”

In early 2021, the City of Rock Island contracted with the Quad Cities Chamber to provide limited downtown place management services and explore the creation of a place management organization and sustainable funding model. 

Jack Cullen, the chamber’s director of Downtown Rock Island, was hired to lead the effort with the guidance of the Downtown Rock Island Steering Committee, which is made up of business and property owners, residents, city officials and other community stakeholders.

“The chamber completed this exploratory phase of work at the request of the city and is advocating for the business and property owners who believe an SSA is the best vehicle to spark revitalization and bring new life and vibrancy into the greater downtown,” Mr. Cullen said.

“We’re seeing other communities in the region and across the country use this tool to their advantage. The decision is now in the hands of the city council.”

“The chamber’s place management services in the past year have already resulted in increased activity, improvements and grant and city funding for additional infrastructure developments.

The establishment of an SSA and dedicated place management organization will take things to the next level,” said Brandy VandeWalle, owner of Skeleton Key Art & Antiques.

“There will be a person focused on business attraction, available to answer questions people may have, to organize special events and connect the dots between all the different businesses, and there are a lot of wonderful businesses down here now,” said Ms. VandeWalle, a 13-year downtown property owner. “We’ve been ever-hopeful that something would pop up and energize the downtown. For the amount of money it will cost us, the SSA is a no-brainer.”

At least seven other downtowns and commercial corridors in the Quad Cities, plus hundreds throughout Illinois and about 2,500 in the United States, have what is commonly called a business improvement district (BID). The Quad Cities Chamber currently manages two other districts and affiliated place management organizations, the Downtown Davenport Partnership and Downtown Bettendorf Organization.

If approved, Downtown Rock Island would join this mix. 

“Revitalizing our greater downtown area is a key component to economic growth opportunities for the city,” said Rock Island Mayor Mike Thoms. “Bringing people, new events, activities and vibrancy to downtown Rock Island also brings increased revenue, improved quality of life and greater value for existing assets. As a municipality, we are always looking for opportunities to leverage our resources and partnerships, and the proposed SSA would be a big step forward in achieving our overall vision for the city.”

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