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Past is present: Downtown Rock Island added to the National Register of Historic Places
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Past is present: Downtown Rock Island added to the National Register of Historic Places

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Standing on Rock Island's Great River Plaza on 2nd Avenue, surrounded by historic buildings, Mayor Mike Thoms stated the obvious: Downtown Rock Island is a historic area.

The significance of Monday's announcement, though, is that now everyone else knows it too, as a multi-block area between 1st and 6th avenues, from roughly the Centennial Bridge on the west to 21st street on the east has been officially added to the National Register of Historic Places.

The listing administered by the National Park Service adds an element of prestige and means that people wanting to redevelop historic buildings in the area will be eligible for both federal and state historic tax credits to help finance their projects.

Being on the national register does not protect historic buildings from being torn down— the former Rock Island County Courthouse and the Rock Island County Office Building are two high-profile examples.

To be accepted onto the register, an area must meet at least one of four criteria; downtown Rock Island qualifies in two categories — its significant history and its architecture — Miles Brainard, planning and redevelopment administrator for the city, said.

Daryl Empen, speaking as a board member for DARI, the Downtown Association of Rock Island, pointed out that Rock Island was a pioneer among the Quad-Cities in recognizing the potential of renovating underused historic buildings into new uses, especially housing with ground floor commercial space.

Two buildings now known as the Goldman and Renaissance Lofts on 2nd Avenue were done nearly 20 years ago — 2001 — and since that time, 481 loft apartments have been created in the downtown, Empen said.

But opportunity remains.

One large building the city would like to see redeveloped is the Best Building at 1705 2nd Ave., a multi-story brick also known as the VanDerGinst Law Building and the Montgomery Ward store because the department store was located there for decades, Brainard said.

"Rock Island is a historically significant community," Thoms said. In addition to opening the way to tax credits, designation "provides an opportunity for Rock Island the showcase heritage tourism."

The city's Broadway Historic District, a residential area, also is listed on the national register. 

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Rock Island's newest downtown apartments — built within the shell of the 1870s Star Block on 2nd Avenue — opened Thursday, a $2.1 million project undertaken by a nonprofit developer, the Rock Island Economic Growth Corp.

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