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In the center of a once-bustling block of downtown Clinton stands the six-story Wilson Building, built in 1912-13 and once home to a J.C. Penney department store and a Walgreens.

Both national anchor stores pulled out in the late 1990s, part of an exodus that left Clinton's downtown, like those in many cities, with too many empty or under-used buildings.

But positive change is in the wind.

By October 2016, the Wilson Building is expected to be converted into 34 market-rate apartments, developed by the nonprofit Rock Island Economic Growth Corp.

And just outside the core of downtown, construction is expected to begin soon on turning the 19th-century former Roosevelt School into 16 apartments, 12 of them income-restricted and four of them market-rate. The $4.5 million project by Community Housing Initiatives, based in Spencer, Iowa, should be finished by mid-2016.

The downtown housing boom that has occurred in the Quad-Cities, mostly through the rehabbing of historic buildings into apartments, also is happening about 40 miles away in Clinton.

To show off the progress and potential, several groups with downtown interests are hosting a walking tour from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Saturday, June 13.

"The whole idea, the whole purpose, is to give people a sense of what's going to be happening downtown," said Matt Hauge, the communications and marketing director for Community Housing, Iowa's largest nonprofit housing and development group, with 1,400 apartment homes in 31 communities.

It was Community Housing that got the downtown redevelopment ball rolling in Clinton during 2003 by opening 19 income-restricted apartments in the historic Van Allen Building, with Wagner Pharmacy as the ground-level commercial tenant. The historic rehab cost $3.2 million.

"Community Housing Initiatives, it was their vision that started all this," said Jessica Kinser, Clinton's city administrator. "They truly have been a partner with the city. We wouldn't be where we are today if it weren't for Community Housing Initiative."

While Community Housing completed two more historic rehabs after the Van Allen — the Howes Building in 2005, with 19 income-restricted apartments, and the Armstrong Building in 2006, with 16 income-restricted apartments — many see the Wilson as a possible turning point because it is a bigger project and all of the units will be market-rate apartments.

"This (the Wilson) signals to us that the tide is turning," Hauge said. "They will bring in a different kind of tenant with different kinds of dollars. It is new energy, new people. A critical mass is happening. This is a big moment for the community."

The Wilson project will be an $8 million investment, said Brian Hollenback, the president of Economic Growth. The financing comes from several sources, including $1.5 million from the city through a 15-year tax increment financing plan, he said.

The economic growth corporation was established in Rock Island but has since expanded its reach nationally, with a concentration in Iowa and Illinois, he said.

In addition to seeing the Wilson, Van Allen and Roosevelt buildings, participants in Saturday's walking tour will stop at the Jacobsen Building, a former Woolworth's store, considered the next big project for the downtown area.

Clinton businessman John Eisenman, a member of the Jacobsen Group that owns the building, said last week that it has been "under option" by a prospective buyer since March, but he could not identify the person or say when the person's plans might be announced.

The Jacobsen Group bought the building in 1998, when it literally was falling apart; the city had to put barricades around it because pieces of roof were dropping onto the sidewalk.

The group put more than $200,000 into the building, including a new roof, and entertained several plans for it, none of which materialized.

But Eisenman, the immediate past president of the Clinton Downtown Alliance, is optimistic.

"We like our chances," he said. "We're the last grand building available. We have 38,000 square feet of pure potential. We can be very patient. At some point in time, we'll have a project."

And the building is not completely vacant inasmuch as it houses The Corner Deli, plus an in-home care business, a computer service and an information and referral service. And the adjoining Brown Shoe Store, also owned by the Jacobsen Group, remains open. 

Downtown leaders don't expect the current redevelopment will return the area to its former life as a retail hub, but they hope it will evolve into a destination of smaller shops, eateries and entertainment venues.

While the emphasis has been on housing, commercial development of ground-floor spaces is important, too.

"The downtown is coming back to life, things are happening," said Jacob Couppee, the director of the Clinton Downtown Alliance. "We want to make it where people want to be again — a destination." 

The more people who live in the downtown, the more likely that becomes, Hauge of Community Housing said. 

But even if and when the Jacobsen Building gets a new use, Clinton will not be without vacant buildings. Other prime candidates for redevelopment are the now-closed YMCA and the former U.S. Post Office, both across the street from the Jacobsen. And the list goes on from there.

Still, Eisenman and other city and downtown leaders aim to keep the upswing going.

Alliance members expect to "pick the brains" of Dubuque leaders who have revitalized their historic downtown and to apply in 2016 to be a Main Street community, a program that promotes incremental progress and implementation.

"We want to keep this momentum going," Eisenman said. "Now's the time. We can't sit back. We have to keep pressing on."

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