If the birth of the Mark of the Quad-Cities 20 years ago was Act I in downtown Moline's redevelopment, the area since has wrapped up Act II and is well into Act III with millions of dollars of new investment in the works.
"The Mark, now the iWireless Center, and the John Deere Pavilion all happened and instigated the rest of the downtown development and really set the stage for what the city was looking for," said Ray Forsythe, the city of Moline's economic development director.
Since the civic center first opened its doors May 28, 1993, with Neil Diamond crooning to a sold-out crowd, the then-tired and underused industrial section of downtown Moline has been undergoing a renaissance. Through the investment of public and private partners, the area was improved with new infrastructure, the John Deere Pavilion and John Deere Commons, Bass Street Landing, hotels and restaurants as well as new and renovated spaces for offices, commercial use and housing.
Janet Mathis, the new executive director for Renew Moline — a public-private development organization, said nearly $300 million has been invested in the central business district since Renew was launched 25 years ago. "Now we're working on projects and developments worth another $100 million," she said. "For a community of 40,000 ... that is tremendous growth."
In the past few years alone, the downtown and extended riverfront has welcomed the opening of Western Illinois University's new Quad-Cities campus, the Work-Live Enterprise Lofts, a Community Health Care Center clinic, several loft housing projects along 5th Avenue and the opening of Kone Centre, the new headquarters for the elevator/escalator maker.
On the horizon is Phase 2 of WIU; Riverbend Commons, a mixed-use development adjacent to Western, that will bring student housing and other amenities; the renovation of two buildings into new hotels and the future Multi-Modal Station, which will house the area's coming Amtrak service. City officials say this latest round of development will bring downtown's reinvestment to more than $350 million, not including the Amtrak station.
Scott Mullen, who has been the civic center's executive director the past eight years, marvels at what the entire Quad-City community and his predecessor Steve Hyman accomplished in the early years.
"I have to give a pat on the back for the community and everybody that chipped in to get this built. If they just wanted a building to make money, they would have put it out in a field ... ," he said, adding that instead the leaders at the time had a vision for what the whole area would — and did — become.
Mathis said the development all traces back to John Deere's original donation of the civic center site and the Quad-City-wide support garnered by the project.
"If Deere hadn't donated a great island in an industrial area, we wouldn't have had what we have today. If you look at the last 20 years, we've added a couple great hotels, have an extended stay hotel and another hotel in development and a number of great restaurants to choose from."
The successes also have spilled into the rest of downtown where new stores, offices and restaurants have emerged. In addition, the downtown business district has seen a 76 percent increase in new housing stock in the past seven years, Mathis said.
"The Kone Centre was an important thing to happen in the last few years," she said, adding that the $40 million office tower retained Kone in Moline. Mathis, who worked for the State of Illinois previously, recalled how Kone "made it clear 10 to 12 years ago that they were looking at options to move, especially with the new I-74 bridge coming."
The developer, Rodney Blackwell and Financial District Properties, acquired all of Kone's properties, building the new headquarters as well as leasing back some of its former properties.
But long before Kone Centre changed the riverfront skyline and completed Bass Street Landing, other Quad-City entrepreneurs had already taken a chance on the area.
Mike Whalen, the founder and owner of Heart of America Group, recalled the collection of dilapidated, industrial buildings that surrounded The Mark in the early days — one of which became the headquarters for his restaurant and hotel company.
"We were bursting at the seams to build a new building," he said, adding that the city had approached him about the old warehouse on River Drive. "They wanted to do a farmers market in it, more like what is happening now at the Freight House (in Davenport)."
While that idea did not appeal to them, he said, "I have to credit my wife Kim who looked at me and said 'you know, that could be made into a cool office.' '' They eventually purchased the building and renovated the riverfront warehouse into its own headquarters with space for other tenants, including Isabel Bloom and Manpower. "No one has gotten tired of coming to work in this building yet," he joked.
He, too, believes much of the credit for downtown's transformation belongs "with Deere, Renew Moline and a lot of generous people." The civic center, Whalen added, "sparked a renaissance not only in Moline, but it spilled over onto the other side of the river.''
Forsythe joined the city eight years ago as Bass Street Landing was taking root and construction was wrapping up on Stoney Creek Inn. "I credit Moline's success with having a vision, putting it on paper and then working the plan."
He recalled numerous trips to Springfield to meet with U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin's office to seek funding for the 5th Avenue street project, infrastructure at Western, and other projects. "They knew we had done it before and so we got a $1 million earmark for the road they are installing today behind Western ... all that was because we had the vision and worked the vision. We went out and recruited developers instead of waiting for them to come to us," Forsythe said.
Pam Owens, the former director of Moline's Main Street program, said while the civic center and other development drove more investment, the creation of Moline Centre was a unifying force in connecting the traditional downtown to the new riverfront. "It was the haves and have-nots," she said.
"I heard the above and below the tracks references constantly. That was definitely the biggest hurdle to overcome," she said.
Owens, who recently left Moline for a similar post in Joliet, Ill., said one of her proudest accomplishments is that "the above and below the tracks" mentality is gone. "It was the city's commitment to revitalizing the downtown as a whole and committing to the 5th Avenue infrastructure improvements and other development projects that make the whole downtown successful."
During her tenure, she said the iWireless Center really stepped up its commitment to be involved in the other downtown activities. In addition, Main Street helped the shop owners and others realize how what happened anywhere in downtown impacted their own businesses.
The facility, Owens said, "was not a silver bullet that saved downtown ... it's a great thing. But what we found was visitors came to the iWireless and would leave. What we did as Moline Centre was create other reasons for them to come downtown."