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A hint of sympathy, maybe even an apology — anything would have been better than what they got.

When several blocks of Davenport's downtown suddenly were buried under floodwater more than six weeks ago, the city's response to its flood-barrier failure felt like another blow to many business owners.

Insult was piled upon injury.

A week after the April 30 breach in the HESCO-barrier system on River Drive, business owners were summoned to a closed-door meeting with city inspectors and other officials.

"Everybody wanted to know how to pump water out of our buildings with the (electrical) grid shut down," said Dylan Steil, co-owner of the flood-ravaged restaurant Roam. "They wouldn't take any questions.

"What they said to us was, 'Don't even think about cutting corners. We're going to hold you to the letter of the law (regarding permits).'"

Dan Bush, who is a partner in several downtown businesses, including Armored Gardens and Analog Arcade Bar, said the meeting gave all the wrong impressions.

Though Bush did not attend, he spoke with many who did and was left with the impression, "They came looking for a fight."

Then things got worse.

About three weeks after the meeting, City Administrator Corri Spiegel summarized the city's flood-fighting status in an open letter to residents and business owners.

"Davenport's flood plan is not and never was intended specifically to protect businesses," she wrote. "As you review the entire length of the riverfront, you will find that to be generally true. Davenport’s flood plan objective is to protect critical public assets and infrastructure ..."

But the business owners thought they were critical public assets.

A group of 36 downtown business and building owners now have come together, forming the Downtown Davenport Business Coalition. The group is imploring the city administration to get better at communicating with them and is proposing a list of changes they say are imperative to their future.

Some of them say any kind of future is uncertain, because the losses have been too great to rebuild.

They believe in Davenport

While many of his friends from high school were graduating college, then moving to bigger cities, Dan Bush came home to Davenport.

The 36-year-old said he remembers the days when going downtown meant going to Mac's Tavern or the Starting Line. The downtown, he said, was dead.

He vowed to help bring it back to life. He and his partners since have opened three downtown businesses.

"We're not wealthy people," Bush said, "We're taking out bank loans. That's how much we believed in our city and wanted to help bring it back."

Dylan Steil, who early this year opened Roam with his brother, Griffin, said he also was answering a call for revitalization.

"The city wanted us to invest in Davenport," he said. "Now I'm looking at bankruptcy."

The letter

In a three-page letter to Quad-City residents, members of the newly formed Downtown Davenport Business Coalition laid out their disappointments and their demands.

The group said they were "making great strides" in creating a more vibrant downtown, noting that three restaurants were set to open the week of the breach.

"Our livelihoods are now in jeopardy," the letter states.

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Some people presume the businesses are being fully compensated for their losses by their insurance. But that isn't true, they wrote. One business owner said he has lost his life savings and the entirety of his $1 million investment.

Plus, many in the downtown did not take on any water but were greatly impacted by the flood, because it kept customers away. Those in the path of floodwaters had to close their doors for several months to repair or even gut their buildings. And many of those who didn't take on water have seen their sales cut in half.

"The reality is some of us may not make it," the letter states.

To stand a better chance of making a comeback, businesses will require the city's cooperation.

"We are at a crucial point of the revitalization process and without the city behind its businesses, the area can devolve into the empty storefronts that used to be the norm less than a decade ago," the business owners wrote. "This early in our revival, the downtown is still fragile — more so now. If the city administration truly supports us, it is time for them to step up."

The Coalition then listed four ways in which the city should demonstrate its support of downtown businesses:

• The city should be "proactive and transparent" in dealings with the downtown, especially when it comes to flood control and public safety. "Dodging our calls and emails, as well as avoiding interviews with the media, will not make this problem go away."

• "By August 1st, the city will provide written assurance that flood protection is intended to protect both public and private assets," is the second item on the Coalition's list. The written assurances must include specifics on barrier size and placement, including a map, and the barriers must be erected according to manufacturer's specifications.

• Time and money are critical to the rebuilding process, and "approval of rebuilding plans must be expedited, and the process must be streamlined." Additionally, individual budgets must be taken into consideration, and "the city must hold itself accountable and recognize approved and finalized plans as final.

"Change orders after the fact lead to unnecessary delays in getting back to business."

• The city must agree to include two members of the Coalition on the Flood Task Force, designated by the Coalition.

The letter concludes with the following statement:

"We are looking for a city administration that shows, both in its words and its actions, that they want us here. We look forward to Ms. Spiegel exhibiting her leadership during this difficult time."

Questioning the breach

Though business owners were not permitted to ask city officials at a post-breach meeting about the causes of the failure, they since have learned enough detail, they said, to be highly suspicious of the city administration's explanations.

"While Ms. Speigel does not want to become 'hyper-focused on the breach area,' we do," the Coalition's letter states.

A full month prior to the HESCO failure, city officials held a meeting with downtown businesses, they said, assuring them the HESCO-barrier system would be built to manufacturer's specifications.

"We would like to know why the plan wasn't implemented," the letter states. "That promise of completing the wall to HESCO standards gave each and every one of us a false sense of security."

In fact, the city supplied a copy in May of the presentation given to downtown business owners and residents on March 28 and March 30. The document clearly indicates city officials knew there was as much as a 50-percent chance the flood would reach 22 feet. Again, this was a full month prior to the breach.

"The HESCOs should have been double-stacked," Steil said. "That's what my belief is."

Bush said city officials were aware weeks before floodwaters destroyed so many downtown businesses that a record flood was likely.

"I know there's an investigation, and we look forward to the outcome," he said. "As much as an explanation, we need support and cooperation. We haven't been getting any of that."

A follow-up column will be posted Tuesday, as city officials are asked to respond to the Coalition's letter and to the business owners' requests and concerns.

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Contact Barb Ickes at 563-383-2316 or bickes@qctimes.com

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