The Rock Island County Courthouse battle will take a new turn at the County Board Meeting tonight.

According to courthouse preservation advocate Bridget Ehrmann, local commercial real estate developer, Joe Lemon, will bring a $500,000 written offer to purchase the historic Rock Island County courthouse at the county board meeting at 5:30 p.m. at 1504 3rd Avenue on the 3rd floor.  The offer includes a purchase price of $500,000 and an agreement to invest $8 million into the restoration of the 124-year-old courthouse.

That’s $8.5 million.

In writing.

And that, up to this point, has been one of the big sticking points in this fight.

For months, the Rock Island County Courthouse drama has played out in the downtown, with both sides slugging it out and the taxpayers awaiting the result to see how much we’re going to be on the hook.

On one side, is the county board and their allies, who contend that the building would be better off leveled, because they’ve got future plans for it as a potential adjunct to the justice center next door, and having the spot free would make that a lot easier. Seems reasonable. However, such a building wouldn’t add anything to the local tax base and therefore wouldn’t do much to help ease the burden of those of us who own property in Rock Island County and keep seeing our tax bills jump every year.

On the other side, are various citizens who contend that the courthouse should be sold to a private developer in order to put it on the tax rolls for the city and county and help lessen the tax burden on county and city citizens. That also seems reasonable. And, as a taxpayer, personally, I like the idea of there being potential tax revenue coming from the spot.

However, the difference between actions and words has been the rub.

The county board folks have contended, correctly, that there has been no offer in writing or anything tangible from a developer, and that everything up to this point has been all talk. That’s true. There’s been a lot of discussion from developers, notably Lemon, about potential plans, but nothing has been put down in writing.

From that perspective, I can see where the County Board has been coming from. I’ve talked to a few of them and people involved with the situation who haven’t wanted to go on the record, and one of their biggest concerns is that nothing tangible would come from all the talk, and it would only prolong the necessary demolition and repurposing of the building.

Lemon actually putting his money where his mouth is changes the game.

Lemon isn’t just some schmuck who doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s successfully restored two other historic structures in the Quad-Cities, including the Abbey Station in Rock Island and the Abbey Addiction Treatment Center in Bettendorf. The guy’s got a track record, and a successful one. And if he’s got the cash, and is putting up more than platitudes, it’s certainly an interesting proposal.

There have been a number of options floated for development of the spot, everything from law offices to a museum to some other private building with a storefront and rental properties. What all of them have in common is the fact that they would bring in tax revenue to the city and county and that they would do something to fill one of the many vacant voids in downtown Rock Island, this one being particularly important as it’s right off the bridge and a gateway to the city.

Ehrmann added, “Rock Island County is currently involved in a costly lawsuit regarding the courthouse because Illinois state law does not allow the county to demolish an historic building without first attempting to market it for development. Currently, the county board refuses to meet with developers, and has voted to use $1.6 million in taxpayer funds to demolish the courthouse in order to create green space. The Rock Island County Board has given no explanation as to their refusal to meet with potential developers.

“By accepting Lemon’s proposal, the board would save taxpayers a costly demolition, as well as the substantial expense of continuing to fight the lawsuit. Repurposing the historic building would create new jobs and much-needed tax revenue for the struggling county.”

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve tried a number of times to get county board folks to speak on the record about this, and to be guests on my podcasts or sit for interviews on the topic, and have been turned down. I’d still love to give them an opportunity to speak their side of things on the record and allow the public to have full transparency. It’s only through hearing the full arguments of both sides that people can get all the information and make an educated decision on the matter.

Tonight’s meeting, and Lemon’s actions, ramp that necessity up a notch. Because if he’s actually throwing down a written offer, for $8.5 million, that should be taken seriously. Development of the spot could be another positive step along the way to the rebirth of the downtown, which was, two decades ago, THE place to be entertainment-wise in the Quad-Cities, but has since been eclipsed by the rising stars of Davenport, the village, and Moline.


Sean Leary is an author, director, artist, musician, producer and entrepreneur who has been writing professionally since debuting at age 11 in the pages of the Comics Buyers Guide. An honors graduate of the University of Southern California masters program, he has written over 50 books including the best-sellers The Arimathean, Every Number is Lucky to Someone and We Are All Characters.