About 56,830 Scott County residents — or about 36 percent of the population — reported German ancestry in the latest U.S. census figures, and the numbers are high in Rock Island County as well.

But in the 18 years since the German American Heritage Center established itself in Davenport, it has received only about 2,000 contributions, and that includes those from corporations and government entities.

Janet Brown-Lowe, the executive director of the center, is working feverishly to change that.

She is leading a charge to raise $180,000 that will meet the terms of two challenge grants — one from the Riverboat Development Authority, or RDA, and the other from the Bechtel Trusts and Foundation. The RDA challenge would eliminate the center’s debt and the Bechtel challenge would put it on the road to sustainability.

So far the center has raised about $100,000 of the $150,000 it needs to generate by April, and it has until the end of the year to gather the remaining amount, Brown-Lowe said.

Brown-Lowe is appealing to everyone, but especially to those with German roots.

The center that has been built in an 1800s German immigrant hotel at the foot of Gaines Street is “world-class,” she said. “People outside of the Quad-Cities are amazed. We know what we’ve got here, but we need a lot more help.

“We are working to become a major part of the (Quad-City) cultural scene,” she said. “We need to get ourselves back on the map. This is a way to get solid and stay that way.”

The RDA gave the center $25,000 last fall and will give it another $50,000 if the center raises $150,000 by April 1.

That would eliminate a debt incurred for operating expenses accumulated during a 14-month time period beginning in 2009 when there was no full-time director, Brown-Lowe said. Volunteers kept the center open, but there was no one to write grant proposals for money — which is critical for most nonprofits — or to dream up programming that would bring in additional paying visitors.

Grants for operating debt are unusual, RDA president Mary Ellen Chamberlin said. They have been made previously to the Bucktown Center for the Arts; the River Music Experience; CASI, the Center for Active Seniors Inc.; and the former Quad-City Sports Center, now the River’s Edge, all in Davenport.

“If you can eliminate debt, you can put more money into programs,” Chamberlin said. “We want to make sure that those we have helped build (such as the German center) are sustainable.

“The German American Heritage Center has come a long way, it’s been through some rough years,” she said. “The (RDA) board was impressed by their progress and programming and their current administration.”

The challenge forces the center to broaden its base of contributors, which will help it in the long run, she added.

The Bechtel Trusts and Foundation will give the center $60,000 over a three-year period if it raises $90,000 over that time, or $30,000 per year. That money would go toward sustaining and stabilizing the center, Brown-Lowe said.

Most of the money raised so far has come by appealing to the center’s membership. Of the 730 members on its rolls, 103 have responded.

Now, Brown-Lowe is contacting early supporters who have not been active for a while as well as foundations and corporations. And she hopes to appeal to the conscience of those of German ancestry who have never given.

“We need people to believe in us,” she said. “We need people to treasure the past and look forward to the future. We want to be here for a very, very long time.”