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A river runs through it

City Council hears challenges, opportunities to develop riverfront

Excavators and bulldozers move dirt and debris Tuesday afternoon from the RB&W riverfront site in Rock Falls.
Excavators and bulldozers move dirt and debris Tuesday afternoon from the RB&W riverfront site in Rock Falls.

ROCK FALLS – The Rock River presents the city with an opportunity for a new economy, consultants told the City Council Tuesday.

Consultants David Schreiber of SAA Design Group and Geoff Dickinson of SB Friedman Development Advisors, hired to present marketing opportunities and challenges to developing Riverside Bike & Walk District, gave members an overview.

The roles of Midwest downtowns are changing. No longer centers of industry, they are placing an increased focus on tourism, Dickinson said.

“We’ve still got civic center functions frequently in downtowns; public event spaces are becoming important,” he said.

Dickinson said he looked to the downtowns of comparable small towns, such as Ottawa and Le Claire, Iowa, for ideas.

“There have been long-term commitments in all these places, some places 20 years of consistent effort, energy, organization to try to revitalize a downtown,” he said. “They all try to take a multi-faceted approach.”

For instance, Rock Falls has opportunities to develop downtown restaurants unlike those found in Chicago, he said.

Leaders need to give people a reason to come downtown, he said.

“The river has been your history,” Schreiber said. “It drove mills; drove river production. There’s opportunities in riverfront communities ... for them to find new economy. That’s what drives this destination kind of thinking.”

Sandy Henrekin is director of the Rock Falls Community Development Corp., which hired the consultants. Their job, she said, is to help the city overcome obstacles to development.

“The reason the RFCDC took the initiative and hired these consultants was we realized we weren’t ready to market; we didn’t have zoning; we didn’t have design guidelines,” she said. “If someone wanted to walk in and develop something, we would be caught unprepared.

“Now we are armed with this information.”

The RFCDC now will look at the strategies and make recommendations to the city on how the two can work together on what’s next.

“It has been our mission to develop the riverfront, because it is the heart of our community,” she said. “That heart is the downtown and the riverfront as well. We’ve always felt like the riverfront will never be developed in isolation. It has to be considered as one.”

Schreiber delivered a condensed version of the presentation to council members after giving the full version to the RFCDC earlier Tuesday.

Because the RFCDC is a private organization, its meetings are not open to the public.

Challenges and keys to success

What are the challenges to developing downtowns like Rock Falls?

- Downtowns are structurally challenged. New development is taking place along highways, not downtown. There's often a lack of parking.

- Communities that used to be manufacturing towns need to be redefined. Leaders have to educate people and give them a reason to come downtown. 

What brings success?

- Presenting various types of attractions, from businesses to parks, that emphasize recreation, culture and the city's unique personality.

- Establishing restaurants unique to the city.

- Doing different levels of branding and marketing, and taking an active role in raising the identity of the city and emphasizing its unique assets. 

- Finding creative funding sources.

- Getting downtown businesses to partner with other organizations to promote development.

Source: David Schreiber of SAA Design Group and Geoff Dickinson of SB Friedman Development Advisors

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