Posted Online: Feb. 20, 2012, 1:47 pm

Blackwell turns artist's eye on property management

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By Dawn Neuses,

More photos from this shoot
Photo: Paul Colletti
Rodeny Blackwell stands on the eighth floor of the still-under-construction KONE Centre in downtown Moline in this photo taken Nov. 2, 2011.
More photos from this shoot
Photo: Todd Mizener
KONE Centre developer Rodney Blackwell holds his son Jack while they watch the building's final beam rise into the air Sept. 14, 2011. In the background is Mr. Blackwell's wife, Jodi, and their oldest son, Alex.
MOLINE -- In college, Rodney Blackwell honed his ability to create, graduating from Augustana College with a degree in fine arts/painting. Since then, he's allowed his artistic ability to grow, now using his mind and hands to build and rebuild communities.

Mr. Blackwell, 46, is managing principal of Davenport-based Financial District Properties.

Financial District Properties owns, operates and manages a collection of limited liability companies, including those that hold Muscatine Mall, two American Bank buildings, strip malls, Piehl car dealership, the downtown Davenport Wells Fargo building and, in Moline, the Fifth Avenue building and KONE Centre, now under construction at Bass Street Landing.

Mr. Blackwell owns $150 million in real estate and has $100 million in buildings under construction, he said.

"I don't think in my mind I've stopped creating. I don't know if you draw the line with the medium you are working with. I truly put everything mentally I have into the buildings I have done, and, if you aren't born with money, you have to do it as you can," he said.

Mr. Blackwell moved to Hawaii after graduating from college in 1989. He spent two years as a sales manager in the automobile business. He moved back to the Quad-Cities and worked in the automotive business while starting his journey into commercial real estate in the 1990s, rehabbing buildings and opening bars in The District, Rock Island.

The Thirsty Beaver bar building was his biggest challenge. "It was uninhabitable," Mr. Blackwell said. "The third floor was sitting on the first floor. Probably one of my biggest pros is I think I can do anything. It is also one of my biggest detriments. I looked at the building and said, 'Oh, I can fix that, and I can do it in a month.' A year later, I finally opened it, and it did really well," Mr. Blackwell said.

He sold all of his properties in The District by 2004. "From there, I started buying everything I could get my hands on. Then I started working on the Fifth Avenue building," Mr. Blackwell said.

He said the downtown Moline building was in shambles when he bought it in 2002. "The windows were falling out. Where (the former restaurant) FIVE opened, it was a catastrophic mess with birds sleeping inside. Pigeons were dead on the floor. The back wall was torn up. I put a bulldozer inside the building and was knocking down walls when the EPA showed up and shut me down.

"It was funny because, at the time, I was doing all the labor I could to make it nice on a limited budget. It is not like you buy something and the next day you can open it up," Mr. Blackwell said.

He said many people don't realize building owners have to be hands-on.

"A lot of people forget when you buy a building you basically become an employee of the tenants you have. KONE calls, and I say, 'Yes, sir; yes, sir. What can I do?' There is a misconception (that) there is mystique or power in buying or developing an older or iconic building. It basically means you now answer to the people within that building. They want it to be the right temperature and so on," Mr. Blackwell said.

He also said he doesn't sleep before he buys a property. "A million times when I buy something, people say, 'Congratulations.' I think, well, that is not the right thing to say. How about 'Good luck?' It was for sale and anyone could have bought it. It is not like you conquered something.

"It got to the point I was buying two to three properties a month. I try to explain to people when you build a portfolio as quick as I did, financially and stress-wise, just from the sheer workload, it is a lot."

Mr. Blackwell said there were many reasons it took four years for construction to begin on KONE Centre. Nothing went wrong, which was the commonly held perception, he said. "Everyone involved was always on board," he said.

It took time to acquire the land from the city, then to create the development agreement. The building was designed to be more than 10 narrow stories, then redesigned with eight wider stories of office space to better fit KONE's office layout, Mr. Blackwell said. The total square footage stayed the same with each redesign: 125,000 square feet, he said.

In 2006-07, KONE mandated all buildings it leased had to meet specific energy-efficiency guidelines. That meant more research had to be done to see how those guidelines could be met within KONE Centre. As time went on, newer "green" technology became available, causing the need for more redesign, Mr. Blackwell said.

Mr. Blackwell also had to go through the financing process. It all came together in the end, he said, adding he is looking forward to moving the offices of Financial District Properties to KONE Centre in June when the building is complete.

Mr. Blackwell characterizes himself as a person with a huge appetite for growing. He now is moving into the business of chartering planes.

"I always joke I can't wait to be a billion dollars in debt. I don't think people get it. It is especially true today, the more debt I have, the more equity I have because you can't do one without the other. It may make you scratch your head," he said.

Mr. Blackwell works with his wife and describes their boys, ranging in age from 3 to 8, as "very grounded." The children often go with them to work. Once, when a lightning storm triggered building alarms in the middle of the night, one of his sons volunteered to go with Mr. Blackwell to turn off the alarms.

As a family, they attended the KONE Centre beam-topping ceremony. Mr. Blackwell said that is the type of thing he wants the boys to experience. "They also see me sitting at home with 500 pages of paper and drawings on my lap, making notes, and they are right there hanging out with me," Mr. Blackwell said.

While he never made a proclamation stating what he would be when he grew up and didn't go to college with a specific career strategy, he said his life is very satisfying.

"I am always extremely happy when I go home to my kids because I know there is no one who does not believe I don't give 120 percent," he said.

Building the dream

Who: Rodney Blackwell, managing principal of Financial District Properties
Quote: "When I buy something, people say, 'Congratulations.' I think, well, that is not the right thing to say. How about, 'Good luck?' "