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Standing on a balcony outside one of seven condos on the eighth floor of Kone Centre, developer Rodney Blackwell of Financial District Properties Blackwell takes in the views residents of the building will have. (Kevin E. Schmidt/QUAD-CITY TIMES)

It was a project with its ups and downs as well as its avid supporters and vocal skeptics.

But the long-awaited Kone Centre is open for business.

The final piece in Moline’s Bass Street Landing development, the $40 million office tower forever alters the city’s downtown skyline and riverfront and provides a new home to a international company with deep Quad-City roots.

More than five years after developer Rodney Blackwell first publicly revealed plans to build a high-rise at the foot of 17th Street, Kone Centre has welcomed its anchor and first tenant — Kone Inc. More than 200 employees who make up Kone Americas Operations Center were moved into the new mixed-use building as of mid-July.

The elevator and escalator manufacturer occupies 3 floors of the nine-story structure.

The project originally was envisioned as a tower that would be up to 20 stories tall. Blackwell, the managing principal of development company Financial District Properties, said the number of floors was reduced but the space never changed. “People thought we got smaller. I said I’d build a 125,000-square-foot building and it’s still a 125,000-square-feet building,” he said.

He added that the building became shorter and wider to expand the footprint of each floor and to provide the office connectivity that Kone desired for its workforce.

Kone is the only tenant to date to move into the building, which will house Financial District Properties’ offices and other commercial tenants. A grand opening for Kone Centre will be 3 p.m. Thursday at the adjacent Bass Street Landing, 619 16th St., Moline. The ceremony was moved there to accommodate all of Kone’s local employees.

For Blackwell, the project represented a chance to build a high-rise that will stand as a shining example of sustainable design and construction. “The goal was simply, from the beginning, to build and lead people to how they should build buildings,” he said during a recent building tour.

Built on a former brownfield site, Kone Centre demonstrates numerous green building principles — from the site selection itself to its design and architecture, building materials, landscaping and operations. Among the examples is the installation of its own energy source — 1,320 solar panels as part of a photo voltaic system as well as light harvesting technology, building materials made from renewable resources and installation of Kone’s own energy-efficient elevators.

The project will qualify for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Gold certification, second in rating only to Platinum. Developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, the certification process is a standard for measuring building sustainability.

Kone’s sustainability

Larry Wash, the new Kone Americas’ president and chief executive officer, said the building is a sign of Kone’s deep commitment to its people and the community as well as “a great place to showcase Kone’s technology and innovation solutions.”

Wash, who joined Kone in June, said “This (project) allows us to really do a lot of great things right at once. It’s not often you get a chance to create a new work environment and create a LEED-certified building at the same time … ”

The building includes elevators with Kone’s Polaris Destination Control System, which has changed the way passengers interact with elevators. Riders no longer will press a button and wait for an elevator door to open. They will choose their floor on the outside of the elevator and the Polaris technology will automatically group riders according to their destination. The system is more efficient and uses less energy.

Kone Centre’s sustainability is a match for Kone’s core strategy, Wash said.

“We help buildings every day to become more energy efficient,” he said.

With less than 4-5 percent of the nation’s buildings earning the certification, he said Kone Centre creates “a huge opportunity with the Green Building Council” to showcase sustainable construction.

Wash will get his first look at the Moline operation this week ahead of the grand opening. “It’s a pretty exciting time,” he said. “A $40 million investment doesn’t happen easily or without a lot of collaboration.”

Blackwell said the project also would not have happened without a willing partner, which he found in Kone. “This was where the tenant played a huge role,” he said. “It was so neat to have a tenant work with you to make a better building and a better planet.”

“It was very expensive to do what we wanted to do,” said Blackwell, who did not allow the worst economy since the Great Depression to deter him from what he calls a “green odyssey.”

Greg Lundgren, president of Ryan Companies, the general contractor for Kone Centre, recalled the first construction meetings in 2007. “Rodney had such a huge vision for what he wanted to accomplish. It was four to five years ago that we first put a price on it and here it is 2012 and we delivered that building at this price.”

But he and Blackwell said there is no denying it was a lengthy process and that the time lag helped create naysayers who believed it would never be built. After a year of planning and a year of verifying the budget — and no physical construction — Lundgren said critics began to emerge in the third year. “We had gotten to the point where either you’re on board with us or you take your attitude and go somewhere else,” he said.

Those same doubts filtered through the community and even Kone’s own employees, recalled Steve Cox, Kone’s sourcing manager, who worked closely with the project both on behalf of his employer and Renew Moline.

“A lot of developers would have said this building just isn’t going to get built. But with the commitment of the community, Rodney, the city of Moline, US Bank … everyone that touched this project really had to stretch to make this happen,” Cox said.

Lundgren said it was in the third year that “we had the worst economic downturn any of us had ever seen. But his core team always believed we can get this done.”

Blackwell said the project never would have become reality without one of the most creative financing strategies ever. “This was the first deal in the country done with new market tax credits and disaster bonds,” he said. He credited the multitude of partners it took to get the project financed including US Bank, the city of Moline, the Illinois Finance Authority, the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity and the Illinois Department of Energy.

Because of that strategy, Blackwell said other developers and projects now are turning to Kone Centre as a financing model, much as he expects developers and builders will do because of its sustainability leadership.

“US Bank was a huge part of making this happen because it was something that had never been done before. Our closing documents were as big as two large telephone books,” Blackwell said, holding his hands nearly a foot apart. “We had 600 pages of signatures. No one had ever seen it before.”

Blackwell said much of the credit also goes to Kone, which joined the ride long before construction began. “When I bought their real estate (in 2007), the deal was done. People thought it meant Kone was leaving,” he said, adding that his purchase of all of Kone’s downtown buildings was all part of the long-range plan to build Kone Centre.

His initial investment included acquiring Kone’s five downtown building and vacant lots and parking lots. Kone originally leased back its operational headquarters and its sales branch. Another building that once housed Moline’s post office was leased to Willis.

According to Cox, the building of Kone Centre enabled the company to consolidate its two downtown Moline facilities into one operation — its operations center near the elevator tower and some of its call center from a building at 325 19th St. “We went from 100,000 square feet to now less than 45,000 square feet.”

Kone has since decided to lease back the 19th Street facility, announcing in March that it will create Kone Technical Services Center there. The facility, which will undergo renovations, will include a training center as well as spare parts supply.

At Kone Centre, the company now operates its Kone Americas Operations Center. It is made up of these departments: global development, sales application support, frontline sourcing, technical documentation and training, business development team, technical services, Kone spares, call center, law and acquisitions, shared services, financing, sourcing, service operations and human resources.

Cox said the move occurred over two main weekends, one in June and one in mid-July. The first group to move was its information technology team, followed by the servers in late June. “Our philosophy was if our customers didn’t know we moved, we had a great move,” he said.

“A lot of people don’t realize what our customer support center does. We have customers who are calling in from all over the country … if they have a need all that is filtered in through our customer call center in Moline,” he said.

Part of the goal, Cox said was to create a better workforce environment that helped improve communication and collaboration. “We’re now co-habitating in Kone Centre in this open environment,” he said of an office design that includes lower workstations to enable better communication between staff.

“Kone has a tremendous history of being in downtown Moline,” he said. “It’s awesome we were able to stay here in the Quad-Cities.”

The project retained 250 jobs in Moline and supported an additional 25 jobs at its Coal Valley escalator plant, which now employs 75.

“It was a strong commitment on Kone’s part to be part of this project,” Cox said. “Ultimately, the payback is certainly there when you think of efficiency of space and our ability to better collaborate on the part of our customers.”

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