David Heitz

As CNN's "Newsnight" with Aaron Brown fades to commercial, a viewer might expect to see an advertisement for American Express Financial Advisers or a pitch for the latest Lexus.

Instead, cable TV viewers in the Quad-Cities see snapshots of over-the-top drag queens posing in a flashy ad for Club Fusion, Davenport's newest gay nightspot.

Although only a couple of gay bars flourished in the Quad-Cities as recently as four years ago, the gay community now boasts its own "Rainbow District," a once-rundown stretch of West 2nd Street in Davenport that now serves as an example of how the community has embraced diversity.

The Rainbow District's business owners have turned a street once known for prostitution into a hip neighborhood visited by influential politicians and other local leaders.

"The work that the people have done there has been great," Davenport Mayor Charlie Brooke said. "The restaurants are good and all of the places are clean and well-run."

"I do think that the people who have built on that block have done a wonderful job of restoring it," said Bettendorf Mayor Ann Hutchinson, who frequently shook hands at Rainbow District businesses while campaigning for Congress. "It's a great tribute."

The Rainbow District attracts the yuppie dollar like a magnet.

"Richard Florida, author of ‘Rise of the Creative Class,' notes that communities that welcome and encourage diversity of all types are the magnets for growth," said Tara Barney, DavenportOne's senior vice president for downtown economic development. "Young professionals are attracted to communities that are inclusive and diverse, and the Rainbow District is an example of how that's happening in the Quad-Cities."

As gays and lesbians and their friends around the country recognize National Coming Out Day today, Davenport's Rainbow District has emerged as a financially successful model of how old neighborhoods can be reinvented. Russell Thomas, part-owner of Club Fusion and the owner of T.R. Video in Davenport, estimates more than $2 million has been pumped into renovating the once-forgotten block.

"Mary's smelled like a big old urinal," said Bobby Stansberry, a former bartender and major player on the gay business block. He turned the long-shutdown Birdland at 832 W. 2nd St. into Mary's, a quiet neighborhood bar catering to a low-key crowd. It opened in August 2000.

Stansberry also has a hand in Club Fusion, a disco at 813 W. 2nd St. that opened in April. It offers a thumping state-of-the-art sound system for its clubbers, a cabaret for drag shows and an outdoor deck with a straight-on view of the Centennial Bridge.

"Club Fusion was all greasy and nasty," Thomas said of the former warehouse.

Next door at 811 W. 2nd St., Thomas and Stansberry oversee a restaurant with piano bar called 811 Lockdown. A shocking mix of mirrored walls, red carpet and elaborate chandeliers offer what its television ad calls "a unique dining experience."

On the other side of the street is Liquid, 822 W. 2nd St., the nightclub that gave birth to the stretch of gay establishments around Thanksgiving Day 1999. The owners — Terry Grimes and Chris Dawson — fulfilled their dream of owning a club where they could throw a huge party to ring in the millennium.

The dance floor at Liquid is a big kid's dream. When partying patrons stomp to the music, the floor beneath them glows like a Lite-Brite. Shock sensors create various light designs. When the high-energy crowd works up a sweat having fun on the dance floor, they can stick their heads under the shower that's tucked into the corner.

Currently, drag performers at Liquid do their routine on the dance floor. A cabaret with a vogue mix of pink and lavender is under construction upstairs, however, and is expected to open soon.

"At first, we were just overwhelmed," Grimes said of the club's immediate success. "We never thought we could go against J.R. He was king of the block forever."

In fact, Grimes and Dawson met at J.R.'s.

Stansberry also waxes nostalgic about J.R.'s, where he worked as a bartender. "When I first came out, he was the only game in town. We used to roll out of there with coins!"

J.R.'s remains a fixture in The District of Rock Island. Owner William Coffey, considered by many in the community to be a gay business pioneer, still pulls in customers after 22 years, mostly for the bar's popular drag shows. Grimes and Dawson also own a bar next to J.R.'s, Augies, as well as an apartment building next to Liquid.

It's business from straight people, however, that is making the Rainbow District thrive. "They love the drag queens," Stansberry said.

Though staunch business rivals, all of the area's gay business owners said attitudes about gay people in the Quad-Cities have improved dramatically in the past five years or so, making all of these businesses possible.

"A lot more straight people now are coming to gay bars in the Quad-Cities,'' Grimes said. "In the last few years, (gay people) have gotten way more acceptance.''

"Especially around here," Dawson added.

David Heitz can be contacted at (309) 786-7753 or david.heitz@mchsi.com.