Ask Brian Hollenback what's coming up next, and you better have some time.

But you have to catch him first.

Hollenback is the president, driving force and face of Renaissance Rock Island, the parent organization of Rock Island Economic Growth Corp. The nonprofit developer started in 1982 as a small housing rehab program for its namesake city.

It's impact has been huge.

Since 2001, Growth has rehabilitated or built 361 housing units (homes or apartments) in Rock Island at a total cost of about $69 million and provided down payment and closing-cost funding to more than 680 people so they could buy homes in Rock Island.

In 2001, it brought the first "loft apartments" to the Quad-Cities, and it now is the first entity to build brand-new single-family homes in the downtown.

Some people who were around in the ’80s — a grim time, with major job losses and shuttered buildings — can scarcely believe this has actually happened.

In 2009, the organization began expanding its reach, first regionally and then nationally, forming new organizations with new partners, with Growth as the lead entity. Now it does projects in places such as Sterling, Morrison, Fulton, East Peoria and Springfield, Ill., and Clinton, Iowa, in addition to its home base of Rock Island. 

The reason for the expanded reach is that Growth essentially had exhausted its ability to bring in new money. In 2005, a former Renaissance president told the City Council that Growth would need a substantial increase in funds from the city and private sector if it was going to keep doing projects.

"We were in the red all the time," recalls Janet Masamoto, president of JTM Concepts, Rock Island, and a member of the Growth board. "We didn't have money to do what we wanted to do. Once we hired Brian, that all changed."

And in what will be a second quantum leap in service, Growth in December applied for $48 million in a form of financing called New Market tax credits. The application was made in the name of one of its other organizations and, if awarded, will provide funding for programs aimed not at housing, but at manufacturing, health care and fresh food retail operations in Iowa, Illinois and Indiana.

"It's the first big thing not to do with housing," Hollenback said.

Examples? Refurbishing an old factory for a new business. Or renovating a building for a health clinic. Or converting space for a store that would sell fresh food in an area that currently has limited access.

Not only is this a new area of endeavor, but $48 million is the biggest single request Growth has ever made. 

If funded, it would have an impact of more than $133.8 million in economically distressed communities in Illinois, Iowa and Indiana, while supporting and creating nearly 2,000 jobs, Hollenback said.

The expanded reach

Funding agencies encouraged the formation of new partnerships and the creation of new entities, akin to subsidiaries, with Growth as the lead.

"We were urged by the Federal Housing Authority, the Illinois Housing Authority and HUD (federal Department of Housing and Urban Development) to capitalize on our strengths to help other communities who wouldn't have the expertise to access those funds," Hollenback said.

Sterling's Mayor Skip Lee offers a loud second to that.

"I'd like to be able to tell you that I was the brilliant mayor who saw the value of throwing in with them (Growth), but I'd be lying to you if I did," Lee said, giving that credit to the city manager and a previous mayor.

The Whiteside County town's involvement with Growth began with federal "stimulus" dollars to rehab, or tear down and build new, about 20 homes, thereby improving the appearance of the city and making housing affordable, Lee said.

And Growth didn't stop there. "There was an educational part that went with that" to improve the chances that new homebuyers would be successful, he said.

In May, ground will be broken for a $4.4 million project that will create 20 new apartments on the top four floors of a building that Lee calls "an obvious sore on the skin" of Sterling's downtown.

"I've been in government for 11 years, five as mayor and six on the City Council, and we've heard a lot of lip service given to the concept of regionalism, but what from I've come to see, they (Growth) not only talk the talk, they walk the walk," Lee said. "They are a dynamic force in this region."

The organization's ability to get things done has attracted national attention.

In March, Growth received a national award at a conference of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition in Washington, D.C., an association of more than 600 community-based organizations.

 The award cites Growth as "the most outstanding rural non-profit organization in the country that best promotes fair and equal access to credit and capital and/or contributes the most in its community toward promoting wealth building in traditionally underserved populations."

Still, Hollenback gets questions all the time about what Growth is doing in other communities.

The early years

Growth organized in 1982 with a mission to enhance the overall image and economic vitality of Rock Island, encouraging home ownership, creating jobs and growing the tax base.

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Being a nonprofit means that all "profit" goes back into the organization, it is not paid to shareholders or to a single owner.

Its conversion of two commercial buildings into downtown lofts in 2001 was its first foray into a multi-family endeavor.

This was in the days when downtown loft conversions were something that happened in such places as Chicago or Boston, not the Quad-Cities. The Goldman/Renaissance project was the first conversion in the Quad-Cities, and Hollenback was in charge.

The layers of financing that were required to make that project happen "was built on the success of DARI," Hollenback said, referring to the Development Association of Rock Island that previously had refurbished the first floor commercial space of the Renaissance building.

That $1 million project quickly filled with businesses, and it's still filled today.

This year marks the 15th year of occupancy of the lofts, the expiration of the tax credits and a restructuring of ownership. And with "profits" from its operation, Growth will undertake a $1.25 million facelift of the 52 apartments, updating them with new mechanicals, windows, paint, cabinets and flooring.

Who comes up with all the ideas?

Growth tries to listen to the community and what it needs.

Renaissance "has a variety of advisory boards to ensure our activities are supported by, and for the benefit of, the community," Hollenback said. "Any time we look at an activity, an advisory board has input. They're sounding boards."

One of Growth's projects, Douglas Park Place, was suggested by Ametra Carroll, a Rock Island resident who had spent time in a Chicago hospital recovering from a drug overdose.

Years later, she happened to be talking to then-alderman Terry Brooks about how great it would be to have a recovery center in Rock Island, specifically one that would provide a home to the children of the clients, too.

"Kids need their mother back," said Carroll, now a substance abuse counselor at Robert Young Center.

The $2 million Douglas Park Place at 720 9th St. opened in 2007, providing eight townhomes for families in which women are recovering from addictions to alcohol and drugs.

Key to success

What makes Growth so successful? Competent people who have become very good at ferreting out funding opportunities and extremely adept at putting together proposals that work, people interviewed for this story said.

"We are constantly in continuing education classes and conferences that give us the most recent rulings," Hollenback said. "We're constantly engaged."

And that is one of the reasons Hollenback is so often on the road. He's traveling to conferences, attending presentations, giving presentations, talking to partners in various states. 

"I say I spend 80 percent of my time on the road and 20 percent in Rock Island to bring 80 percent of resources to Rock Island and 20 percent to the outside," he said.

Growth board members such as Daryl Empen will tell you that Hollenback "deserves 99 percent of the credit, if not more," for Growth's success.

But Hollenback himself will defer to his team of about 18 employees and to the dozens of development partners the organization has worked with through the years, beginning with the city of Rock Island.

"I really need to stress our partnership with the city," he said.

"You surrounded yourself with good people, strong partnerships, and you produce," he said. "You demonstrate your capacity. You're only as strong as the people who work for you." 

In talking about Growth, he constantly uses words such as "partners" and "collaboration." Everyone who works for Growth has the words "team rock island" as part of their email address.

Walk into the organization's offices on the ground floor of the McKesson Lofts (an $8 million project completed in 2008) and you see stenciled on the hallway walls words and phrases such as "Seize the day," "Excellence," "Perseverance," "Inspire" and "All things are possible."

Hollenback's favorite? "What the mind can conceive, the team can achieve."

Callers to the office are often surprised to have messages or emails returned after 5 p.m.

"That's what we do," Hollenback said.

The last grant application the group submitted required 250 hours of work.

"That was seven days a week until it was done, rotating out on Sundays," he said. "It's hitting the 'submit' button at 11:05 when the deadline is midnight. That's real."

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