Sean Leary

To say Rock Island made a colossal error in wasting $15 million to woo Walmart to 11th Street is a stunning understatement. But what’s perhaps saddest and most pathetic about it is its irony.

Rock Island, like thousands of other cities across the country, will, at least once a year, pay lip service and throw promotional money at “small business weeks” and hollow pitches to “shop local.”

City officials should’ve heeded their own advice in this matter.

Aside from the property owners who were able to hit a stunning jackpot on selling their failed and crumbling 11th Street businesses at insanely inflated prices, a number of other business owners could’ve utilized that $15 million to much better use in Rock Island.

And Rock Island taxpayers would’ve gotten a far, far better return on their investment.

What Rock Island needs is more business, but what it really needs is more locally-owned businesses. When a Walmart comes to town, they bring jobs and revenue, yes. But it’s not the same. Oftentimes, the tax revenue from Walmart is negligible, because they’ve already negotiated so many tax breaks as extortion, er, negotiating, to come to a city. They also pay horribly low wages and benefits, which doesn’t give their employees as much disposable income as could be beneficial to a local economy and conversely, ends up costing taxpayers in local community aid services (e.g. to help with housing, utilities, etc.) to make up for Walmart’s paltry compensation. In addition, the money spent at Walmart actually hurts other local businesses, because that’s taking away money that would otherwise be spent in local stores. Saying that a Walmart could bring in however many millions a year may be true, but what’s the number after you calculate the net profit? And what’s the long-term net gain?

When money is spent at a locally-owned shop, it goes to the locally-based owners, who then spend it in town. Your net gain is much higher. When money is spent at Walmart, it funnels upward to the Walton family heirs, the richest people in America, who, just to clarify, live nowhere near Rock Island and probably think “Rock Island” is a song by Sammy Hagar.

Once more, a city has fallen into the inexplicable Stockholm syndrome towards big business, brainwashed by the fallacy of trickle down economics, the greatest hoax to be perpetrated on America over the last 50 years, and the most insidious and damaging. And, once more, it’s been insidious and damaging.

But imagine what would’ve happened if Rock Island had actually shopped local, so to speak, and spent that money in helping rebuild their diamond-in-the-rough downtown into one to rival the ascendant downtowns of Davenport and Moline?

Both of those latter cities seem to “get it,” at least more than Rock Island does. Davenport was saddled with a decrepit albatross in the Freight House and helped turn it into an incubator for local businesses that has become a buzzing hive of activity and on any given Saturday, one of the hippest places to shop in the Quad-Cities. Moline’s downtown was full of dicey, dingy old relics the same as 11th Street and over the past decade it’s blossomed into a cool night spot rife with restaurants and pubs, the vast majority of which are, yup, locally owned.

There’s no reason that shouldn’t have happened, and can’t still happen, with Rock Island. Rock Island has a lot of incredible amenities in the downtown – Schwiebert Park, for example, is gorgeous – and it’s been anchored by awesome businesses and the home to long-successful outdoor festivals. For a long time, Rock Island was way out front in this race. For a long time, Rock Island was booming into an arts mecca in the downtown and was looking like it was going to be the cool place for young professionals to live. But it didn’t capitalize on that momentum and it had its fire stolen by the Village of East Davenport, downtown Davenport and Moline.

It’s not as if Rock Island hasn’t had opportunities staring it right in the face. Opportunities which they short-sightedly ignored.

The biggest and most obvious to me, and the most irksome, has been Daytrotter.

For almost a decade, Daytrotter sat, loyally, in a rundown spot in downtown Rock Island, with nothing but potential to offer. When Davenport started sniffing around, looking to build Daytrotter its flashy new digs, Rock Island should’ve snapped to and done something about it. There were, and are, plenty of empty spots in downtown Rock Island that could’ve, and should’ve, been converted into a spot at least as cool as Daytrotter’s new home on Brady Street. And at a much cheaper cost. Daytrotter didn’t have to leave. They were given an offer they couldn’t refuse, and that offer should’ve come from Rock Island, at a mere fraction of the $15 million wooing they were offering Walmart.

But that’s not all. As I’ve mentioned before, downtown Rock Island had, and has, the potential to be the coolest arts hub in the Quad-Cities. Imagine if they had stepped in and helped make Daytrotter a home. Imagine if they had likewise stepped in and worked to keep District Theater in business. Not in the Argus building, which was too big and was unsustainable, but somewhere, maybe the old Brew and View, which could’ve used some city help to get up to code. And maybe keep the Blacklist in a black box in downtown. Maybe you lure Quad City Theater Workshop from their spot in the boondocks of west Davenport. And maybe you start a farmer’s market up in the District on the weekend, like the Freight House does, and you invite food trucks and small vendors over to be a part of that. And maybe you engage a young guy with a lot of passion, energy and love for Rock Island like Dylan Parker, and you get him involved in a space that echoes what he’s already doing with Garage 3.

Now, that may not have the big splash of a Walmart, but those little splashes add up to one really cool pool.

If you’ve got a downtown Rock Island that already boasts spots like Circa, The Establishment, the Speakeasy, RIBCO, Blue Cat, Theo’s, Rozz Tox, Icons and the other District restaurants and bars, and you expand eastward and westward and add to that a Daytrotter venue, District Theater, the Blacklist, Garage 3, a weekend farmer’s market and invite a couple of the up-and-coming food trucks like Static Melt to park there on the regular, well, then suddenly, you’ve got a whole lot of activity and foot traffic. Which adds up to a whole lot of extra money and people. And then maybe you start to see more people moving in to the lofts and apartments downtown because it’s a more fun place to be. And maybe that expands eastward to the bike trails, the park, the Botanical Center and Expo Center, and you start to see more young families arriving for those family-friendly amenities, and maybe the old train station becomes a family museum or something hitting that demographic, and within a decade, you’ve got a bustling riverfront extending all the way up to Augustana, up to a thriving College Hill.

And where there are people and there’s money, businesses are going to want to be. And when businesses arrive, tax revenue increases and you don’t need as much in property taxes, so home taxes and costs go down, and more people buy homes here, and so on.

This is where the future paradigm is – building from the ground up, building from the middle class out. Drawing in people in multiple ways to create synergistic revenue streams that then draw in more revenue through the opportunity created.

That may seem like a bold, futuristic vision. But vision is what is needed to rebuild Rock Island.

It’s not too late. What’s done is done. But there should be a lesson learned from this huge mistake. And that lesson is to build from within when you have the chance. Why should outside businesses get all the breaks and perks? Why not extend those same perks to local small business owners who are going to end up being the lifespring of activity and growth?

Rock Island can be great again. It should be great again. Its citizens deserve that. The Quad-Cities deserves that.

Let’s make that happen.

It’s time to shop local.

And that begins with giving us some local places to shop.

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 almost 30 books including the best-sellers The Arimathean, Every Number is Lucky to Someone and We Are All Characters.