Davenport City Hall

Davenport City Hall

JEFF COOK, QUAD-CITY TIMES

Times change. And so must Davenport's key social engineering program.

The city's key tax incentive for residential development, Davenport NOW, was justifiable in 2008. The national markets were in free fall. The mortgage crisis was spiraling out of control. Davenport had, for years, hemorrhaged population and, with it, students in its school district.

But the very conditions that Davenport NOW was designed to combat aren't nearly as relevant as they were during the the Great Recession's death spiral. And, in many instances, it's exceedingly likely that the tax incentive program, as now structured, is contributing to blight at Davenport's core.

First, it's imperative to state that there are very good reasons to support new builds moving northward. Those developments, often targeting the upper middle class, do offer an incentive for the well-heeled to settle in Davenport, bolstering the long-term tax base in the process. All the while, home buyers are repeatedly sold on the attributes of neighboring school districts and communities. 

But, frankly, sprawl is expensive. It requires new streets, fire protection districts and sewer capacity. It pulls from existing infrastructure that, as the city center languishes, could service thousands of new residents.

There are several key problems with Davenport NOW, as it's constructed. A dearth of metrics and measurable goals must be included in any new or revised version when it sunsets next year. For example, boosting enrollment in Davenport Community Schools was a stated goal when officials rolled out the tax incentive in 2008. By that measure, it has failed, say annual enrollment totals. What's less clear is if Davenport NOW stabilized the bleed or had any effect at all.

Any new iteration must set clear, measurable goals. And the program should be revisited every two or three years with those fundamental stats on hand to gauge its success. 

What is clear, though, is that Davenport NOW has, as currently constructed, disincentivized in-fill. And it's here that City Council and planning officials should focus their efforts while crafting the program's ultimate replacement, a point council members seem to recognize.

The debate about Davenport's city center extends far beyond Davenport NOW, mind you. It's an important debate, one rightly at the crux of Palmer College's proposal to reshape its neighborhood. 

In-fill is a complex, multifaceted issue. It must grapple with gentrification. It must honestly face racial and class divisions. Battling white flight should be a component of any well-rounded debate about social engineering focused on housing stock. It must reckon with a desire among some to turn every old home into a monument to historic preservation. It must accept that, in many cases, 100-year-old homes don't fit the postmodern aesthetic and are simply too costly to rehab. That's true, at least, unless the city uses Davenport NOW's replacement to incentivize the endeavor.

Thing is, in 2008, Davenport's downtown was still recovering three decades after the farm crisis that hollowed it out. Downtown has, by and large, made a comeback thanks to significant private investment and laudable public support. Meanwhile, Davenport's fringes continue to grow, consuming farm land and stressing finite municipal resources. All the while, existing housing stock -- or at the very least existing lots -- decay.

These are places where starter homes could thrive. They're tracts that, once developed, could fortify downtown's rehabilitation. They could, ultimately, contribute to the city's long-term success while, if done right, coming to grips with the geographic racial divisions that too many city officials are loathe to acknowledge.

The reality in Davenport has shifted in the past nine years and the city's evolution no longer justifies Davenport NOW as written. The program needs a refresh, one that includes measurable outcomes and bolsters Davenport's core. 

Local editorials represent the opinion of the Quad-City Times editorial board, which consists of Publisher Deb Anselm, Executive Editor Autumn Phillips, Editorial Page Editor Jon Alexander, City Editor Dan Bowerman, Associate Editor Bill Wundram and community representative John Wetzel.

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