The dream of a revitalized hilltop retail business district in Rock Island is well on its way to reality.
College Hill District is gaining new clientele and new businesses, said Annette Zapolis, the owner of Cool Beanz Coffeehouse at 14th Avenue and 30th Street. She is president of the College Hill District organization.
“In the three years since we started working with the city of Rock Island, we have had 13 new businesses open and two or three close,” she said. “This shows that excitement from other business owners is catching on. This is a developing part of Rock Island.”
The district is what organizers call a two-node neighborhood commercial area consisting of about 90 properties and 60 businesses. It is located at the intersections of 14th Avenue and 30th Street and surrounding areas, and 14th Avenue and 38th Street, and surrounding areas.
According to the district’s website, the area originally provided services and entertainment to students from Augustana College and residents of the immediate neighborhood. But over time, according to the website, “the market area has dramatically expanded with the establishment of a vibrant antiques and collectibles niche and other specialty businesses that reach customers from a hundred miles away.”
The newest place in the district is actually three businesses in one.
Dave and Lynda Requet have opened the Black Ram on College Hill restaurant, which offers fine dining. Connected to the restaurant is The Grotto on College Hill, a bar that serves bar and finger food, including the original Italian Village pizza. The third business is Gendler’s Wine and Spirits, a name familiar to the Quad-Cities for more than 90 years. The Requets purchased the Gendler name.
Dave Requet’s parents opened the first Italian Village restaurant in Moline in 1963 and later opened the Rock Island Italian Village on the site where the complex is located at 14th Avenue and 30th Street.
Dave Requet said the restaurant’s latest incarnation opened July 9, only to close because of a sewer collapse. It finally reopened Aug. 13. Currently, there is a large outdoor patio space that eventually will be used for the second phase of the project, an addition that will become The Grotto.
“Everything is either meeting or exceeding expectations,” he said of the complex. “We offer a mix of family recipes and some new dishes from Dean McCollum, our executive chef. The response has been fabulous. Everybody has enjoyed some of the old with some of the new.”
Dave Requet said there is a “buzz” over the progress of the College Hill District. Zapolis said that is intentional.
“These businesses are coming into the area and are aware of what we are doing ... bringing business to Rock Island ... because of what excitement we are generating,” she said. “We have a bunch of consignment and niche shops, which bring in tourists from out-of-town to come antiquing.
“Our area has been developing the last three years. It generates a little bit of a spark.”
Zapolis said the College Hill District name was approved two years ago and representatives of the area have worked with the city of Rock Island and Augustana College. In all, she said 26 businesses are members.
Plans call for changes such as improving facades and designing street banners with the district logo. Also possible are window decals, planters, benches and trash receptacles.
“We want to make it a more walkable place, not only to add unity and beautification but also to be usable by the community,” she said. “Some of these things might take awhile.”
The new ideas and organized efforts are appreciated by the merchants.
Mike Kavenaugh has owned and operated Kavenaugh’s Hilltop Tap at 1228 30th St. for 28 years. But the establishment has been around many years before that, he said.
“The gentleman I bought it from was here 38 years and his father had it before him,” Kavenaugh said. Years ago, it was called the Bullfrog Tavern.
He likes what the association has been doing to attract more customers to the area.
A couple of blocks away, Rich Nunez and Neil Vigars opened Against the Grain Brewery & Alehouse in the former Mi-Pa-Nora Lamp and Shade Co. building at 1340 31st St. Vigars said business is better than expected.
“We are seeing new faces every day,” he said. “We are seeing everybody, from suits and ties to tie-dye — everybody who enjoys the craft beer. It has been humbling, the support from the neighborhood, and the Hilltop have been real good to us, too.”
Another new tenant is Barb McKay, owner of Fabulous Finds, a retail and consignment shop at 3922 14th Ave. It opened in April and she recently was named as eastside representative to the College Hill District organization.
“That is my job, to get more involved,” she said. “And it gives me more opportunity to meet people in the community.”
She said moving from Rock Island’s 18th Avenue has made a huge difference.
“Amazing,” McKay said. “We have a lot of repeat customers. Our email list has at least quadrupled.”
She said her shop offers antiques and homemade items, including jewelry and furniture.
One thing McKay would like to see is uniformity in landscaping within the district.
Jeff Eder, the city’s new community and economic development director, wants to continue the good relationship that has been fostered with the district members.
“We are trying to work with the group to keep a cohesive front from a business standpoint,” he said. “We wanted to help start the organization, and now listen to them about what improvements need to be made in the area, zoning issues ... things like that.”