What began as a college assignment to study the nearby Hilltop Campus Village turned into a campaign for St. Ambrose University, its students and the community to get more involved in the neighborhood’s revitalization. 

A group of 15 students enrolled in Professor Patrick O’Leary’s entrepreneurship class was tasked to study the central Davenport business district situated generally between St. Ambrose and Palmer College of Chiropractic. The assignment took the upperclassmen into an area that — despite its proximity — many had no familiarity with because of its stigma and reputation as an unsafe area.

On Thursday, the class presented its findings and videos they produced to a group of city officials, St. Ambrose faculty, Hilltop supporters and the media. Many students spoke of how they had been “warned not to go south of Locust” because it was not safe. They also found a lack of awareness of the businesses there and the ongoing efforts to redevelop the area.

“I wanted them to show the lens of the Hilltop,” said O’Leary, who involved another class previously in a similar assignment when the Hilltop became designated as a Main Street Iowa’s Urban District. “They had to understand the roles and expectations of the stakeholders.”

The students spent nearly half a semester on the project, producing four separate videos that looked at the problems, the perceptions, the challenges ahead and the strides to date.

As she introduced her team’s video, senior Alissa Morrison told the crowd that “many don’t realize what the Hilltop is. They only see what’s up here (on campus). We looked at why it has been neglected so long and how it hopefully can attract some entrepreneurs there.”

The students’ videos included interviews with business owners, Central High School and St. Ambrose school leaders, residents and city employees who had been involved in the effort to turn around the area. They also questioned fellow St. Ambrose students about their perceptions and found a fear factor among students. One of the videos suggested “it will be a long time before that stigma is taken away.”

Addressing the unsafe reputation by introducing a little humor, one team used the theme song from the movie “Jaws” as the camera spanned the neighborhood as well as music from Mr. Rodger’s neighborhood and movie clips from “D-Day” and “Field of Dreams” to talk about the violence and the future.

Scott Tunnicliff, Hilltop’s executive director, was interviewed by the teams about the neighborhood’s accomplishments to date and its future. He suggested St. Ambrose form a student club dedicated to the Hilltop.

“We have to get the merchants more engaged in marketing to the students because there is always going to be more students coming in the area,” Tunnicliff, who attended Thursday’s presentation, said in the video. “We have to get students resisting the notion that Locust is like the Atlantic — you don’t cross it.”

After the presentations, Tunnicliff suggested that the students could get involved in the Hilltop work groups.

Ambrose students interviewed suggested that the area bring in businesses such as a coffeehouse, a movie theater, more restaurants and bars, specialty shops, a bowling alley and fast food restaurants.

John Cooper, St. Ambrose’s vice president for enrollment, offered some strong words for the university’s need to get even more involved.

“Our institution will sink or swim depending on how this area goes,” he said on the video.

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Cooper, who also addressed the crowd Thursday, commended the project for engaging the students in the community.

“I’d like to see in the next five, 10, 15 years you students coming back and saying, ‘Wow, Harrison Street has really changed. Wow, Locust Street has really changed for the good,’” he said encouraging St. Ambrose and its students to be part of the solution.

One of the participating students, Cameron Cartee, a junior, said the project was rewarding, especially given his familiarity with the neighborhood. He is a Central High School graduate.

“When I went to Central, there was a general perception that you don’t go to certain places in the neighborhood,” he said, adding that the perception is changing “as people are getting involved.”

A Davenport native, Cartee said he would like to be part of the solution.

“Now I feel more of a sense of need to be down there to help,” he said.

Morrison, his classmate, said Ambrose students have always had an unwritten rule about avoiding the area south of Locust. She hopes the efforts there will change that.

“We’re all interested in opening our own businesses someday,” she said. “Maybe we can look at Hilltop Campus Village.”