Retail has not been Rock Island’s strong suit for as long as many Quad-Citians can remember.
City leaders often looked next door to Moline with envy because of big sales-tax producers, such as SouthPark Mall, Walmart and retail corridors, including John Deere Road, Avenue of the Cities and the downtown.
But it appears Rock Island’s time has come.
First came news of a Super Walmart development at the long-suffering Watch Tower Plaza. Last week brought news that Trinity Health System is planning a $61.3 million expansion at its Rock Island campus.
But another plan is unfolding that could deliver the city’s best retail news yet: A nearly 100-acre development on Big Island, across Interstate 280 from Jumer’s Casino and Hotel.
The project must undergo considerable scrutiny and review, given the island’s complex flood-control system. And specific retailers have not yet been identified.
But Thomas Thomas, the city manager who arrived in Rock Island 15 months ago, has his sights firmly set on the most comprehensive retail project of his nearly 20-year career in city planning.
The idea for an outlet or strip mall on Big Island did not come to town with City Manager Thomas Thomas.
The concept was around even before Jumer’s Casino and Hotel relocated from the downtown in 2008. But the project now occupies much of Thomas’ time and a large portion of a wall of his office.
“I’ve never done something as comprehensive as Big Island,” he said last week. “That’s why I keep it (a giant map of the project area) on my wall.
“I always look for challenges when I look for jobs. One thing that attracted me (to Rock Island) was the big projects. Big Island is a huge project, and it has implications for the entire region.”
Thomas has heard the rumors, too: A Bass Pro Shop or Cabella’s is coming to Big Island.
But neither is true. At least, not yet.
“I have done a Bass Pro, and I’ve done a Super Walmart,” Thomas said of big retail projects during his career. “We can go to a trade show, but what do we show the big boxes? They want a timetable. I can’t give them a timetable, yet.”
Before city officials can begin to market the Big Island location to potential retail tenants, they have to have the blessing of the two owners of the island’s elaborate flood-control system. Possible modifications to the system, including more than 10 miles of levee, are under consideration and review.
The area already has been deemed qualified as a Tax Increment Finance District, or TIF, meaning portions of new revenue from a development could be set aside for additional projects at the site. The city also is working with the owners of the 90-plus-acre property, RiverStone Group, to buy the land.
About 10 acres has to be annexed into the city, and an access point has to be built off Illinois Route 92, a configuration that is described by Mayor Dennis Pauley as “just about identical” to the one built at the access to Jumer’s.
“One of the best decisions Rock Island ever made was the relocation of Jumer’s,” Thomas said. “The data we’re getting from Jumer’s on their customer demographics is very valuable.”
And what, exactly, is Jumer’s role in the development?
“What they bring to the table is the destination,” he said.
Bill Renk, the casino’s director of public relations and promotions, said Jumer’s has a history of making big contributions to Rock Island’s growth and is approaching the Big Island project from a “team” perspective.
“We’re in full support of it and part of the team,” he said. “In many respects, just as Jumer’s 21 years ago helped foster the rebirth of the downtown … it’s all about destination marketing. There was a time when, literally, tumbleweeds were blowing across the streets, not that Jumer’s single-handedly changed that.”
Several members of the team involved in the Jumer’s relocation have retired from Rock Island in recent years. Thomas said his new team, including fellow newcomer, Community and Economic Development Director Jeff Eder, now is in position to take over where former mayor Mark Schwiebert, city manager John Phillips and economic development director Greg Champagne left off.
“My predecessors put everything in place and made it possible for me,” Thomas said. “I’m aggressive, Jeff (Eder) is aggressive, and I have a great staff.”
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Thomas is not the only city official to credit Rock Island retirees with getting the city in position for big growth.
“Over the years with Mark (Schwiebert), John (Phillips) and Greg (Champagne), they were setting the pace, keeping us in excellent financial shape,” Pauley said last week. “We have excellent bonding power and borrowing power, and we’ve kept that excellent financial rating.
“Our saving grace has been Jumer’s.”
The city has been collecting $6 million a year from Jumer’s through a combination of two taxes: a per-head tax of $1 for every casino patron and a 5 percent share of adjusted gross receipts.
The mayor said he thinks the proposed development on Big Island will be received much differently by island residents from a 2004 plan for a gravel-mining operation.
“There’s a big, big difference between a sand and gravel pit and this,” he said. “This is a destination, and it will help property values. We will work very closely with the Big Island people.”
Phillips, who served 25 years as city manager, said he is “encouraged” to see progress being made on the casino-related development and said the Walmart project was a long time coming.
“It’s great to see these things happening,” he said. “Fundamentally, we’ve always had policies to make tough financial decisions. Otherwise, you dig yourself into a hole.”
He said the lack of retail opportunities in Rock Island in recent decades should not suggest the city was stagnant.
“Look at the expansion of KJWW Engineering, and there are so many examples like that,” he said. “Those things are not as visible to the public, and the retail projects generate a whole lot more sales, property and utility taxes.
“These new projects are turning out as we hoped.”
Asked whether he regrets not being a part of projects the size of Walmart and Big Island, Phillips said his emotions are mixed.
“I do not feel at all envious,” he said. “I feel good about the success. It’s wonderful. I guess the thing I’d say I miss is just being able to influence something so positive. One really cool thing about my job was having a long-term impact on the community.
“But I’m done. I’ve backed off, and the city is in very good hands.”