For years, restoring 11th Street to its former retail luster has been near the top of the city of Rock Island’s wish list. With a new Walmart Supercenter headed to the Watch Tower Plaza area, that dream might be realized.
Nearly two weeks after city officials revealed Walmart Inc.’s plan to expand to Rock Island, the news has city and economic development officials optimistic about how the big box store’s arrival will spur more investment in the tired commercial area.
“The idea is to let this be the beginning of a corridor plan with the Walmart being one of the cornerstones of it,” said Rock Island City Manager Thomas Thomas.
Located along the city’s highly traveled 11th Street/U.S. 67 thoroughfare, Watch Tower Plaza has been a shadow of its former self for nearly 30 years. Opened in 1962, the shopping complex was home to Zayre department store and Eagle Food Center. The pair anchored the retail complex for two decades until both stores closed within a month of each other in 1983.
Kevin Wittenauer, whose Mainstream Commercial Group owns a large portion of Watch Tower Plaza, said the complex “was the first of its kind” with the two anchors as well as a multitude of other retailers and state agency offices.
“It would have been the Elmore Avenue or John Deere Expressway of its day,” he said.
But the area “hasn’t been a hub for some time,” said Thomas, who has been working on landing a big box retailer for Rock Island since he arrived on the job a year ago. “There have been some mom-and-pop-type businesses and other development. But this is an opportunity to revitalize that area to be a retail hub.”
“If you look at what a Walmart store is — a department store, grocery and automotive center — we’re bringing back all those goods to this neighborhood,” said Jeffrey Eder, who has been the city’s community and economic development director for about six months.
In addition, he said the project will provide a significant boost to the city’s sales tax revenues, which is more critical than ever with the city’s loss of one of its largest sales tax generators — Zimmerman. The former downtown auto dealership relocated in August to a new dealership it built on Moline’s John Deere Expressway.
Eder said the Walmart will bring some additional property tax, but it is a property that already has been on the tax rolls. “The big advantage is sales tax,” he said, estimating the city will receive $1.4 million in sales tax annually.
City leaders also have touted the new jobs the mega-retailer will bring to Rock Island’s west end.
Just as important is what Walmart’s arrival will do for one of Rock Island’s busiest corridors.
“There are quite a few businesses that follow Walmart’s footprint,” Thomas said.
Wittenauer, who bought the then-failing shopping complex in 2009, agreed that when a Walmart goes in anywhere, others follow.
“It’s going to go nuts down there,” he said, adding that he bought the property — then only 30 percent occupied — when there were rumors of Walmart Inc. building a new store south of the site.
“I don’t know if it will get to an Elmore Avenue or John Deere Road traffic count,” he said. “But Walmart is the biggest retailer in the world, and it doesn’t put stores where they don’t think they’re going to make it. It’s just a killer deal for everybody concerned.”
He pointed out that a store of such magnitude will be a draw from more than just Rock Island residents. “It will serve Milan, the west end of Davenport, Andalusia and more.”
Thomas agreed, adding that Walmart and the accompanying businesses also will “serve people who work here and travel home along 11th Street — traveling as far as Galesburg.” Commuters and residents alike, he added, will be drawn to shop there.
Brian Hollenback, the president of Renaissance Rock Island, the umbrella agency over the Development Association of Rock Island and Rock Island Economic Growth Corp., or GROWTH, said the new retail development also will serve all of GROWTH’s Old Chicago residential developments scattered around the north end of 11th Street.
“As we continue to provide more rooftops, it continues to stimulate the local economy, which bring more shoppers to the community and increases the tax base,” he said.
In particular, he said the Walmart grocery “addresses what is a food desert” in the west end. There are few options for grocery buying for those who live below Rock Island’s hill area.
The 22.4 acres occupied by Watch Tower is not the only existing retail center that could be destined for redevelopment, Eder said. The city also is looking at a strip center near 42nd Avenue and 11th Street and other nearby sites.
“Right now, we’ve just been concentrating on putting the properties we need for Walmart under contract,” he said.
Some of the first developments that could begin a corridor-long revitalization are new buildings that will be built on city-owned land just southwest of City Limits Saloon and Grill, Thomas said. The property — where the city and developers previously tried to lure Walmart — will be designed to accommodate some of the displaced Watch Tower tenants as well as new tenants.
Eder said the city is committed to helping the current tenants find new locations either in the same area or other locales in Rock Island. Among those that have agreed to move to the 7.5-acre site are Black Hawk College’s Adult Learning Center and Christine Elsberg’s State Farm office. In addition, he said the Iowa/Illinois Center for Independent Living, which now is in an outlot building, plans to relocate to a new building to be sited between 5th and 6th avenues. “They actually needed more space,” he said.
With the exception of Hill & Valley Premium Bakery, he said the city has option contracts to purchase all the properties at Watch Tower.
“We would like to keep some of them down there,” he said, adding that some tenants are eyeing downtown and the 18th Avenue corridor. He said the city also has plans for a new two-story office building and other retail lots at the vacant, undeveloped site.
Not only will Walmart be “a huge economic engine” for the neighborhood and city, but the store’s arrival “actually will help some of these businesses — some of which were struggling — to be in a better position.”
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Hollenback said Development Association of Rock Island and the city are completing agreements to redevelop the city-owned land near the intersection of 9th and 11th streets. The associtiation will help lead the efforts to bring new construction to the area, he said.
“It’s all part of our comprehensive approach to rebuild Rock Island,” he said. “We’re working from both ends of 11th Street and working our way to the middle, block by block.”
Eder said the city’s vision is for a redeveloped 11th Street corridor that extends from the south end to Walmart and north of Walmart to 31st Avenue. “We’d love to pull it (the redevelopment) all the way up into Old Chicago.”
Ted Rebitzer, the real estate broker hired by the city to secure the properties, said putting together the 11th Street revitalization deal was a long but worthwhile process.
“I have been watching this develop for several years,” he said.
He said the city had evaluated several sites over the years, but when the Town & Country bowling alley burned to the ground two years ago, it opened up the Watch Tower area to offer more available ground. With the northeast corner of the site left vacant after the fire, he said, it created more room for Walmart and others to build.
The preliminary plans call for the Walmart store to sit on the north end of the property with its front door facing south, Eder said, stressing that the plans are preliminary. By repositioning the building from how Watch Tower now sits, he said, “it bridges the gap between 9th and 11th streets.”
While much of 9th Street is residential, Eder said the retail improvements also will carry over into the housing stock. “People are going to want to buy homes and put more money into homes in this area now,” he said.
Rebitzer agreed. “It takes a big project to start to change the personality of an area. It is a step in the right direction. But it did not happen overnight ... This was several years in the works.”
Thomas thinks this run at luring the big box was successful because of a combination of “the economy bouncing back” and the city “being super aggressive about Walmart coming here.”
“We see this as just the beginning,” he said.
Eder described the project as a fascinating process. “To get to here is amazing. For me, the harder work is yet to come — making sure we follow through and get it built.”
He said Walmart is expected to break ground next spring and open in mid-2013.