Jack Cullen Returns To Where He Began in Quad-Cities – Rock Island
When Jack Cullen first visited Rock Island in 2008, to look at Augustana College, he fell in love with downtown. After he graduated from Augie in 2013, downtown is one reason he decided to settle in the Quad-Cities.
Come April 1, the enthusiastic 30-year-old (who grew up in Madison, Wis.) will return to Rocktown as the first downtown Rock Island director for the Quad Cities Chamber. Under a new two-year-contract with the city, Cullen will provide place management services for the historic riverfront business district and create a new downtown organization.
“It’s really gonna be filling this gap, as a liaison between the city and the business owners and property owners, because it doesn’t really exist right now,” he said Monday of the new job. Cullen has worked full-time for the chamber since September 2018, first as Q2030 project manager and then as marketing and communications manager. “It’s a liaison who’s building up trust with the business owners and property owners and working with all parties downtown,” he said. “It’s building consensus, which can be challenging but it’s great to see that there is a lot of excitement not just on City Council, but with other stakeholders downtown. There’s just this positive forward momentum and with the establishment of an organization that’s focused on downtown.”
“It’s great to see a diverse group of energized and engaged downtown Rock Island stakeholders with long-term placemaking goals in mind,” Kyle Carter, executive director of the Downtown Davenport Partnership, said in a Monday chamber release. “I have no doubt Jack will harness this energy to create an immediate and tangible impact as he helps facilitate consensus and action as the downtown Rock Island director.”
“There is so much potential that exists in revitalizing our downtown area,” Rock Island Mayor Mike Thoms said. “Having Jack on board now, whose sole focus will be to bring vibrancy and growth to downtown Rock Island, is a big step forward in our overall vision for the city.”
Mayor Thoms appointed a downtown steering committee in 2020 to continue the implementation of the city’s 2015 Downtown Revitalization Plan. The group recommended the establishment of a downtown place management services agreement, and in late January 2021, the Rock Island City Council approved a two-year contract with the Chamber.
Through the contract, the city will pay the chamber using tax-increment financing (TIF) funds over two years — $110,783 through Dec. 31, 2021, and $114,107 through Dec. 31, 2022.
The chamber has established similar efforts through the Downtown Davenport Partnership and Downtown Bettendorf Organization. The Davenport group has been in existence since the 1970s and Bettendorf since 2019, and both are affiliates of the chamber.
Both are funded through self-supporting municipal improvement districts, in which downtown property owners pay additional taxes to support growth and development of the area.
A similar arrangement may be proposed for downtown Rock Island, according to the chamber – in Illinois, the comparable term is a special service area, and Moline and East Moline have them, but Rock Island doesn’t.
Cullen will lead discussions with the diverse steering committee – which includes a mix of business, city, and economic development leaders, and residents – and work to come up with developing a funding model and organization within the first year.
“I’m really looking forward to working with the other downtown stakeholders to figure out how best we can make these positive changes while exploring the creation of this downtown entity,” he said.
“One of my goals is to find these the community champions, get the buy-in and hopefully develop a plan for this organization,” Cullen said.
Coinciding with proposing funding beyond 2022 is deciding what capital improvements and other projects are priorities for downtown, he said.
“I would love in year one to establish a solid plan for the future,” he said. “I think what’s exciting is that there are a lot of people who are encouraged, that are energized about the potential of this organization to build up downtown Rock Island and that we have some money to make some immediate changes.”
“Whether it’s building enhancements or streetscape improvements, just making it more of building on those great assets that are already there,” Cullen said. “I know the Arts and Entertainment District, great restaurants, the Great River Trail, and Schwiebert Park are all such great bones there. It’s figuring out, how do we elevate what’s there and build on it in a way that it’s still true to downtown Rock Island? You gotta stay true to the unique character.”
Any new investment from a new special service area can only be spent within that district, Cullen said, noting it could be used to hire other staff. The new position is especially timely as downtown businesses (as most nationwide) have had a very tough year dealing with the devastation caused by the Covid crisis, he said.
“The chamber has just been hyper focused on providing support to businesses,” Cullen said. “We want to figure out what services they need, just to keep them going, and hopefully to grow.”
Q-C entrepreneur Matt Stern, owner of several downtown Rock Island properties , applauded Mayor Thoms for forming a downtown steering committee and spearheading the city’s partnership with the chamber.
“I am very excited about the talent on the steering committee to reinvigorate and reinvent our downtown, and the addition of Jack to help lead this effort is a huge win for Rock Island,” Stern said. “There is so much potential for our city, and I look forward to the transformation.”
From tennis to love
Though Madison, Wis., has an obscure little college (University of Wisconsin, 45,540 total students), Cullen wanted to get out of town for school and play tennis at a liberal arts college. He found that at Augie (2020 enrollment of 2,370).
“That was a big thing for me. And I wanted the
smaller school thing,” Cullen said. “And just to get a different experience away from my hometown. It happened to be a great spot for me. I was able to play tennis, on varsity all four years. It was a great sport-school balance, being a student athlete there. And I had never heard of the Quad-Cities before discovering Augustana, but I fell in love with it.
“My dad and I came for my college visit and downtown was my first impression of the Quad-Cities,” he recalled. We stayed at the Holiday Inn down there when I visited Augustana. And obviously, it left a good impression on me since I stayed and actually lived downtown.”
Cullen majored in multimedia journalism and mass communication, interning over summer 2012 at the Dispatch/Rock Island Argus, when he said he truly fell in love with the Quad-Cities. After graduation, he had another summer internship for the daily in Madison, the Wisconsin State Journal. Cullen returned to the Q-C
in December 2013, becoming a reporter at the Quad-City Times.
“I had a couple roles at the paper, which I really enjoyed and made such great connections – getting connected to the community and different people,” he said.
In 2016, he met his future wife, Maria Ontiveros (a member of one of the Q-C’s most influential families). They got married last June, in a small ceremony, attended just by close family. Cullen lived in downtown Rock Island at The Locks apartments, from 2015 to 2017 (he and Ontiveros now live in Moline).
“That’s really where I kind of developed that true connection and relationship with downtown Rock Island and, the business owners and residents. It’s a special, special place in the Quad-Cities.”
“A lot of my favorite businesses are down there, throughout the downtown area,” Cullen said. “So it still feels like home and I still park in my old parking lot. and I just love walking around down there. So I am excited to get back to that.”
“There’s such great bones in the history of downtown and the opportunity that we have some real money, to make an impact, make some changes that get people excited about going downtown,” he said of the new job. “It’s just a great opportunity.”
Since 2014, Cullen has been an Augustana assistant men’s and women’s tennis coach. He serves on the boards of Mercado on Fifth (of which Ontiveros is president) and River Action and is a part-time student in the professional MBA program at the University of Iowa.
Chamber as perfect launch pad
Leading the coordination of the chamber’s Q2030 strategic plan was a key steppingstone to Cullen’s next job. “I helped to build consensus across the community, focus on various initiatives,” he said of Q2030. “Working with different business leaders and setting big goals for the Quad-Cities and figuring out how we can achieve those. I think that definitely helped prepare me. I think in my time with Q2030, I helped organize and led like 90 of those stakeholder meetings.”
“That was community building, organizing work. So I’m excited to, as we’re focusing specifically on downtown Rock Island, to work with this committee,” Cullen said, noting it will transition to become the new group’s board.
“There’s just awesome excitement around making some noticeable changes,” he said. “We’re really gonna be focused on exploring the creation of a new entity, right? An organization that’s solely focused on building up downtown Rock Island. And so that’s why we need those community champions on board. And we need to find a sustainable funding model, that can find the organization and capital improvement projects for the long term.”
While Cullen will oversee the day-to-day management of the downtown revitalization effort, he will also work collaboratively with the Development Association of Rock Island (DARI), a separate entity providing economic development and financial incentive expertise for all of Rock Island, when new development opportunities arise.
“DARI is eager to work in alignment with Jack as we collaborate to help new economic development projects come to life in downtown Rock Island,” said Liz Tallman, DARI vice president of development services. She is on the downtown steering committee, and Cullen worked with Tallman when she was on the chamber staff.
“They’re really experts on economic development and financial incentive packages,” he said of DARI. “I’m gonna be playing that kind of that connector role in using the technical assistance from DARI, to figure out how best we can help them and support them as they develop in in downtown Rock Island.”
“I think it’ll be a great partnership and I am excited to figure out how we all work together,” Cullen said.
Among his roles also will be to help implement recommendations on the appropriate use of the city’s remaining downtown TIF funds. The Downtown TIF District (that started in 1985) expired at the end of December 2020.
Just prior to that, the City Council allocated the remaining funds generated by the TIF to a collection of different projects – including approximately $1.5 million for downtown infrastructure improvements – to be completed over the next few years. (You can see a complete list of approved downtown TIF projects yet to be done HERE.)
Through the $225,000, two-year contract with the chamber (approved by the city council), Cullen will:
- Determine a sustainable funding model for a place management organization.
- Create a place management organization.
- Represent and advocate for downtown property owners, businesses and residents.
- Help the city prioritize TIF funds to deliver services in downtown Rock Island to enhance public spaces, encourage investment and improve quality of life.
- Market the downtown as a great place to live, work and play through website and social media.
- Draft articles and updates on downtown activities for newsletters and website as needed.
- Establish and foster relationships with all stakeholders.
- Conduct community outreach and consensus building regarding urban planning initiatives impacting the downtown.
- Identify funding opportunities through the identification of public and private partners and grant opportunities.
Cullen said the steering committee includes Mayor Thoms, city aldermen, owners of Huckleberry’s Pizza and Daquiri Factory, and Eric Rowell, Augie’s assistant director of admissions and diversity outreach.
“It’s a good mix of people who are passionate about downtown and want to see it grow,” he said.
No position on 2 a.m. bar closings
A contentious issue that Cullen and the new downtown group may have to address is the City Council’s late February vote to maintain downtown bar closings at 2 a.m., earlier than Moline’s 3 a.m. closing hour. Ald. Dylan Parker, whose ward includes The District, voted against the earlier closing time, and he’s on the downtown steering committee.
Bar owners maintain that the extra hour and the booming business it gets from people crossing the river from Iowa (where bars have long closed at 2 a.m.) are necessary to keep them afloat, especially given the heavy hits their businesses have taken over the past year due to Covid.
Some bars in the District have closed down for good – including Black Sheep and Billy Bob’s – and one, Big Swing, was forced to close temporarily. Mayor Thoms has insisted the ban was not permanent and could be changed at any time in the future. However, he did acknowledge there was no plan to change it at the moment.
“We need to work on changing the perception (of downtown Rock Island) and working on a new day and not the past days,” the mayor said last month. “Yes, there is an overarching plan and vision, and I’ll tell you what that is. But to go (in another direction), that’s maybe where I, and Dylan, disagree is when to implement this vision, and what should come first. I’m not saying I’m right or wrong or he’s right or wrong, we may not know until after the fact.”
“But we need to do something drastic to change the image (of the downtown). You can do all the TV commercials you want, but up to this point it hasn’t changed much,” Thoms said.
Cullen said Monday that as downtown director, he wouldn’t have any jurisdiction there.
“You know, obviously I can fulfill an advocacy role, but I haven’t had the conversations with those business owners and property owners to figure out what the best solutions are moving forward,” he said. “But I’m sure that and another potential issues or solutions will come up in conversation. So that’s why those meetings and those one-on-ones with the investors and business owners, property owners are so important.
“Part of this role is to fill in that gap of being the liaison between the city and the and the business owners and so rebuilding that trust by hearing out what their needs are, what their concerns are, what their hopes are, what they’re excited about in downtown Rock Island and figuring out how we can build consensus around that,” Cullen said.
“I have that experience of building consensus, developing relationships,” he said. “There’s definitely people I still need to meet and
relationships to build. So I’m excited about that. And although the city council split, on that specific (bar closing) decision, what they’re not split on is this vision to build up downtown Rock Island.
“So I think that’s really exciting to me. It’s clear that the city council shares the vision that, yes, we need to do some things, to make downtown more vibrant, a place for everybody to enjoy,” Cullen said.
He’s also looking forward to working with the city on how it will allocate $27.5 million for Rock Island from the federal American Rescue Plan approved by Congress – among the $350 billion going to state and local governments nationwide. Cullen’s downtown Rock Island office will be in the former visitor center on 17th Street across from Theo’s (appropriately, connected to the downtown Holiday Inn).
For more information, visit www.quadcitieschamber.com.