Stories of the Year: The 20 biggest Quad-Cities stories in 2019
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Stories of the Year: The 20 biggest Quad-Cities stories in 2019

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The past 12 months brought plenty of major news to the Quad-Cities. The year started with record-setting low temperatures in January and ended with area farmers still trying to recover from massive flooding and an ongoing international trade war. And the 10 months in between were filled with big stories, too.

These are the top Quad-Cities stories of 2019, picked by Quad-City Times and Dispatch-Argus staffers:

Record flood, breach 

All eyes already were on the swollen Mississippi River when disaster struck last spring.

Davenport had for many years depended on its levee of sand-filled HESCO barriers to protect the downtown from the river.

When the first failure of a section of HESCOs occurred April 30, the damage to nearby businesses was devastating. But the event was alarming in more immediate ways because it happened at 3:30 p.m. on a Tuesday — when nearby offices and businesses were occupied.

Some city workers who had been watching the levee became concerned about its ability to hold, and a warning went out to many businesses: Evacuate.

But the time between the warning and the breach was not sufficient for many, and flat-bottomed boats were dispatched downtown to rescue the stranded.

Vehicles were left behind in the gushing floodwaters, and the water was so high that some floated down the street.

City officials said they didn't have time to fortify the HESCO wall when more rains poured into the flood-soaked Quad-Cities. But other sources, including a report by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, suggested the city should have been prepared. Additional barriers, not sandbags, were needed to protect the downtown, among other adjustments.

The levee failure occurred at 21.68 feet. Two days later, the river crested at a record 22.7 feet.

Almost immediately after the breach — while remaining businesses still were deciding whether to rebuild — city officials and regular citizens began talking about the future of flood-fighting in downtown Davenport. Flooding was a primary campaign topic during the 2019 Davenport mayoral race that Mike Matson eventually won in the fall. 

A permanent levee system to protect all nine miles of the city's riverfront would be prohibitively costly, highly damaging to downstream neighbors, environmentally reckless, and still largely unpopular among those who reject a barrier to their river views.

As the city continues to make plans for its riverfront, every aspect of flooding is being taken into consideration. A combination of remedies may be the most likely outcome.

— Barb Ickes

I-74 bridge: progress, setbacks

Spring flooding was hard on Interstate 74 bridge workers, and a mild summer did not make up for spring's setbacks.

The record flood of 2019 followed a brutal winter, and the result was a thrown-off timeline for construction of the new I-74 bridge.

As weather warmed and skies cleared, bridge watchers expected major progress. It didn't come.

What came instead was news that the primary contractor, Lunda Construction, was struggling to build the bridge's signature arches as designed.

Lunda was in disputes and negotiations with the Iowa Department of Transportation, claiming the bridge design was "not constructible" and asking for more money than agreed to in Lunda's $322 million contract.

The DOT acknowledged its completion goal for the Iowa-bound span again was being delayed. If it is finished by late next year, as predicted, it will be a full year behind schedule.

As fall approached, though, something appeared to click.

More new arch segments were added in November than had been erected all summer. As workers prepared to add the first of four lateral struts that will connect the westbound span's arches, the DOT had more good news: The two sides of the arch were nearly identical in length.

The "legs" of the arch that expand outward from their piers near the Bettendorf shoreline are nearly 300 feet long. As they were measured for their strut fitting, workers discovered the disparity in length between the two legs was just a half-inch.

As the weather holds, more progress is expected on the arches, which are critical to the bridge's timeline. They have to be finished before the bridge deck between them can be added. Workers have been trying to make up for lost time by getting ahead on other aspects of the project.

The bridge, its ramps, interstate expansions and realignments and other portions of the overall project are estimated to cost $1.2 billion.

— Barb Ickes

Recreational marijuana legalized in Illinois

Recreational cannabis sales will kick off at 6 a.m. Jan. 1 at Nature's Treatment of Illinois in Milan. Legislation legalizing marijuana was introduced, passed and signed into law in 2019 by Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, following through on campaign promises he made in 2018.

The bill, which underwent some amendments in November, likely will see more changes as state legislators return to work in 2020. For now, Illinois residents can buy and possess up to 30 grams of marijuana from a dispensary. Iowa residents can possess half that amount despite marijuana still being illegal in Iowa. 

NTI will be the only seller of recreational marijuana in the Quad-Cities, at least for the first part of 2020. 

But recreational users should expect sales to be limited to edibles and vaping cartridges due to supply issues in the Land of Lincoln. Illinois medical marijuana patients, who are given priority over recreational customers, should still be able to buy flower.

— Robert Connelly

Turbulent year for farmers

Roller-coaster weather and a trade war between the U.S. and China added up to a rough year for area farmers. 

While a so-called phase one agreement between the two countries was signed in December, the future of trade remains uncertain. The U.S. also inked a new trade deal with Japan in recent months, and the new North American trade deal between the U.S., Canada and Mexico, or USMCA, was approved by the U.S House after sitting idle for months.

A potential third round of aid payments for farmers through the U.S. Department of Agriculture could occur in January 2020. Those payments have helped farmers make back some money lost during the trade war.

But throughout 2019, farmers have said “trade, not aid,” hoping to restore existing relations with trade partners or establish relationships with new ones.

As for this year's crop, beans and corn  planted late in the season were mostly harvested between two snowfalls in late fall. But September precipitation led to an increased demand for propane, as farmers had to use heat in facilities to dry out crops that contained too much moisture.

And while some were able to take their crop to ethanol plants in 2019 to generate revenue, issues remain with the Environmental Protection Agency's expanded use of waivers exempting oil refineries from their annual ethanol blending requirements.

— Robert Connelly

Harvest time for crops

This year was a turbulent one for area farmers, as several external factors contributed to poor growing and selling seasons. 

Record cold, snowfall

The coldest winter on record kept Quad-Citians guessing in a year of weather extremes.

January brought temperatures ranging from spring-like 50s to record-breaking, sub-zero temperatures.

An all-time record low of -33 was set on Jan. 31. The previous record of -28 was set on Feb. 3, 1996.

January was also the snowiest month on record, eclipsing January 1979 by 3.5 inches. Total snowfall for January 2019 was 30.2 inches.

Precipitation totals for the first six months of 2019 were:

  • 2.96 inches - January
  • 3.72 inches -  February
  • 2.13 inches -  March
  • 6.51 inches - April
  • 9.76 inches - May
  • 4.53 inches - June

Total precipitation was 29.61 inches, 12.72 inches above normal.

The 18.4 inches of precipitation that fell in March, April and May added up to the third-wettest spring on record. 

— Linda Cook

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The temperature on the Blackhawk Bank & Trust sign read minus 26 degrees at 6:58 a.m. Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019, in Coal Valley.

Paul McCartney comes to Q-C

Ex-Beatle Paul McCartney caused a Quad-Cities commotion long before he set foot in the TaxSlayer Center in Moline on June 11, 2019.

Hundreds of people lined up early Sept. 6, 2018, with the hope of scoring tickets for the show. Some people didn’t even buy tickets — they just took video and photos of the people in line.

By noon, online tickets were available only in the $697-$2,097 range.

This was the first Quad-Cities appearance for McCartney. Throngs of ticket-holders packed restaurants and bars hours before doors opened for the sold-out event.

Inside, fans had to stand in long lines just to look at merchandise. Fans stood again when McCartney, 77, took the stage to perform decades of hits from his solo work, including his 2018 album “Egypt Station,” Wings tunes, and 22 songs from his days with The Beatles. He opened with “A Hard Day’s Night.”

“Live and Let Die,” the James Bond movie theme, included a pyrotechnics show with fireworks and explosions.

— Linda Cook

The legacy of 'Happy Joe' 

Lawrence “Happy Joe” Whitty didn't just serve pizzas and ice cream at his popular restaurant chain. He also served his fellow men and women with countless acts of kindness and generosity, said people who spoke at his Nov. 9, 2019, funeral.

Whitty, who founded Happy Joe's 47 years ago in the Village of East Davenport, died Oct. 29 at age 82. He was honored at a funeral Mass at St. John Vianney Catholic Church, Bettendorf, and later a Celebration of Life at Jumer's Casino and Hotel in Rock Island, complete with Happy Joe's pizza and ice cream.

“Joe was, indeed, a remarkable man,” said the Rev. James Vrba, pastor at St. John Vianney, who presided over the service. “From simple and humble beginnings, he became an amazing self-made man who made a special impact on everyone he encountered.”

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A portrait of Lawrence "Happy Joe" Whitty (1937-2019) sits at the entrance to St. John Vianney Catholic Church, Bettendorf, before his funeral service on Nov. 9, 2019.

A native of Minot, N.D., Whitty kept a symbolic empty chair next to his desk in his office at 2705 Happy Joe Drive, Bettendorf, the priest said.

Through his selflessness, his kids' foundation, his annual holiday party for those with special needs, and 24 grandkids and 12 great-grandchildren, Whitty will be remembered for far more than pizza.

— Jonathan Turner

Fight over courthouse

The fight to demolish — and save — the historic Rock Island County Courthouse reached new levels in 2019 as county officials and preservationists dug in their heels.

After county board members voted in July 2018 to transfer the deed to the Public Building Commission for the purpose of demolition, Landmarks Illinois and six additional plaintiffs filed suit Feb. 6 to save the structure at 210 15th St., Rock Island.

The suit was dismissed March 19 by Peoria County 10th Circuit Judge Jodi Hoos, clearing the way for demolition. 

Just when it appeared the courthouse had a date with the wrecking ball, Landmarks Illinois, the state's largest nonprofit historic preservation group, was granted an emergency appeal after paying a bond of $336,000, and a restraining order was put in place to stop demolition. 

As both sides waited for an appeal date, courthouse advocates in April discovered holes had been punched in the roof during asbestos abatement and demanded a tarp be placed over them to protect the building from the elements. Sheriff Gerry Bustos, who is in charge of the building as long as it remains an official courthouse, refused. 

Landmarks Illinois offered to settle the suit with the county April 24, provided the county agreed to market the building for buyers. The county rejected the offer in August, confident it will win the appeal and move forward with demolition.

Meanwhile, courthouse advocates have maintained a constant chorus of protest, continuing to plead with county board members at every public meeting to save the historic structure. Some have pulled out checkbooks, offering to purchase the building on the spot, including local developer Joe Lemon Jr. 

The appeal was heard Nov. 6 in the Third District Appellate Court in Ottawa. The decision by three appellate judges has not yet been announced.

— Sarah Hayden

Rock Island County courthouse

The Rock Island County Courthouse as it appeared on Aug. 1, 2019, in Rock Island.

Commercial development across Q-C

Commercial development in the Quad-Cities hummed along in 2019, including in East Moline, where numerous businesses sprouted in the shadow of the game-changing Hyatt House/Hyatt Place hotel that opened in late 2018 in a development called The Bend.

The Bend Event Center, a 4,400-square-foot-building that includes venue rental space as well as a Bass Street restaurant, debuted in July in front of the Hyatts along the Mississippi River.

The Rust Belt, a factory-turned-music venue that opened in 2018, was further built out with the addition of Streamline Architects, Streamline Artisans, Iron + Grain coffeehouse, Midwest Ale Works, a photography business, a hair salon and barbershop, a gym and a modern Mexican cafe.

Q-C Gas Mart opened in the area; a 72-unit Riverbend Commons apartment building is under construction; and more development is in the works.

Hotels/motels: More places to stay opened throughout the Quad-Cities, including a Hilton-branded Home 2 Suites in Bettendorf on the site of the former Jumer's Castle Lodge, a Candlewood Suites in Davenport, an Axis Hotel in downtown Moline, and a Cambria Hotel at the TBK Bank Sport Complex in Bettendorf. Two others remain under construction in Davenport.

Davenport's 53rd: A long-awaited Portillo's restaurant opened west of Elmore Avenue in a development that includes a Raising Cane's Chicken Fingers restaurant and a branch of First Midwest Bank. Smart Luxury Motors of Davenport, dealers in Volkswagen, Audi and Mercedes-Benz, claimed the southeast quadrant of the intersection of 53rd and Eastern Avenue.

Headquarters: Three businesses opened large and architecturally striking new corporate offices: Russell Construction off 53rd Street in Davenport, the IH Mississippi Valley Credit Union along River Drive in Moline, and the Ascentra Credit Union in Bettendorf.

— Alma Gaul

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The new Combine restaurant inside the The Bend Event Center in East Moline opened in July 2019.

New Y developments

The Scott County Family Y hopes to expand its reach with a new YMCA in downtown Davenport and a potential branch in Eldridge. 

In September, the Y broke ground on a new $22 million downtown facility on 4th Street near East River Drive. Construction continues on the new 73,000-square-feet building, which will replace the existing Y at 606 W. 2nd St., at the foot of the Centennial Bridge.

The new Y will be named for the late R. Richard Bittner, a longtime lawyer and administrator of trusts that over the years donated $10.3 million to the Y, including $3 million for the new building. The new project is directly north of the Y's Early Learning Center and is being built by Russell.  

The Y has also been in talks for the past five years with the City of Eldridge and the North Scott School District to study the prospect of partnering on a new Y facility there. It would be the first Y for the north Scott County community and the organization's seventh branch. 

School and city leaders envision the facility could replace the city-owned Fitness Center, which is in need of serious updates and repairs, as well as provide the school district with its first swimming pool.  

Though the financing plan is still being discussed, the city and school have committed up to $7 million in funding. Residents are pushing for a reverse referendum to vote on a proposed tax hike for the project. 

— Jennifer DeWitt

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Davenport Mayor Frank Klipsch, left, shakes hands with Jeff Bittner, the son of R. Richard Bittner, and Todd Gipple, chief volunteer officer for the Scott County Family Y, at a formal groundbreaking Sept. 12, 2019, for a new downtown Y. The building is being named for the late R. Richard Bittner.

Davenport Schools face state scrutiny

Davenport Schools in 2019 hired a new superintendent and seated a new board. They also continued to deal with state scrutiny, including for central office structure, a slow start addressing disproportionality citations, and a controversial property sale

The sale of the Lincoln School property to a nonprofit affiliated with Third Missionary Baptist Church, where the school board's then-Vice President Linda Hayes worked, is now being looked at by the State Auditor's Office. 

State Auditor Rob Sand said he was not at liberty to share details about what exactly prompted the "matter" — he didn't call it an investigation or audit — to be opened.

The building was sold for $30,000, and a bid of $290,000 was left on the table. The school board is under no obligation to accept the highest offer, as outlined in board policies. 

Hayes and then-President Ralph Johanson both noted they might have "conflicts of interest" in a closed meeting on March 12, 2018.

Johanson declined to run for his seat. Hayes was re-elected but is no longer vice president

— Megan Valley

Rock Island changes expense policy 

Scandal hit the city of Rock Island this year when a Dispatch-Argus investigation in June uncovered former Alderman Virgil Mayberry had used his city-issued credit card to pay for thousands of dollars in personal items such as gasoline, dry cleaning, postage, cuff links, and a $430 custom bulletproof vest during his four years in office. 

Documents showed Mayberry spent $5,192 in 2017 alone — more than $3,000 over the allotted $2,000 limit in his representation fund on personal expenses. 

Mayberry was defeated by write-in candidate Randall Hurt by 36 votes in the April 2 municipal election. He continued using his purchase card until his last day in office on May 13.

City officials demanded in two June letters that Mayberry reimburse the city for a total of $1,142.38. Mayberry declined to pay back the money, saying what he spent was approved by council members and not illegal. 

Aldermen took swift action by voting on June 22 to tighten the city's expense policy. 

The city's new spending resolution, which took effect Aug. 1, reads, "Use of these funds should be for the benefit of the citizens of the city and not for personal enrichment."

Mayberry is now a Democratic candidate for Rock Island County Board.

— Sarah Hayden

Rock Island Ald. Virgil Mayberry, 2nd Ward

Former Rock Island Alderman Virgil Mayberry, 2nd Ward. 

Mental health region funding

Since its formation in 2014, the Eastern Iowa Mental Health Region has struggled to deal with various funding mechanisms and requirements from the state, including limits on the tax levy that can be used for mental health.

With more mandated services on the way, the mental health region has started making cuts, including more than $1 million in September.

Additionally, Muscatine County elected to leave the region. Supervisors have alleged mismanagement and are weary of more possible cuts in 2020. Muscatine County may join Southeast Iowa Health Link in 2020. 

— Matt Enright

Bettendorf Fire staffing

Matthew Brown, 27, died in July of complications from an asthma attack in Bettendorf. Criticism followed when it turned out emergency respohders came from the downtown State Street station, instead of the closer Surrey Heights Fire Station.

Surrey Heights is staffed by volunteers; no volunteers were available that night.

Fire Chief Steve Knorrek at a Sept. 3 Bettendorf City Council meeting gave a presentation outlining response times and the department's volunteer program. 

In its 2019 strategic plan, Bettendorf identified fire staffing as its top priority.

"This is aimed at Surrey Heights station, and I would say that their goal is to have medical and fire staffing 24/7," City Administrator Decker Ploehn said in an October interview.

— Matt Enright

Bettendorf’s State Street Fire Station

Bettendorf’s State Street Fire Station is shown during 2015, when it became fully staffed again for the first time in eight years. 

WIU enrollment spirals downward 

In 2019, the crises over enrollment and identity at Western Illinois University came into full view.

Total fall 2019 enrollment at the Macomb-based school, which has a campus in the Quad-Cities, fell 10% from the year prior. Overall, total enrollment has fallen 42% since 2008. The declines reflect Illinois’ historic budget impasse, reduced public support for higher education, a hollowing out of rural communities in the region, and a statewide exodus of college students.

The enrollment crisis precipitated the exit of university President Jack Thomas, who resigned in June amid an acrimonious public campaign for his ouster. Many Macomb residents, WIU faculty and media onlookers condemned the “Fire Jack” effort as racist. Thomas’ generous exit package, meanwhile, was criticized by others as a “golden parachute.”

University-wide budget cuts were approved in October, and the Board of Trustees has refused to release years of private audiotapes.

More encouragingly for university leaders, student retention ticked up, as did funding from the state. Interim President Martin Abraham, brought in from Youngstown State University in Ohio, has said he is confident the university will survive.

— Graham Ambrose

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A bulldog statue outside the Western Illinois University Union in Macomb. 

Hope Creek Care Center in limbo

Rock Island County Board members made the decision in 2019 to sell Hope Creek Care Center, the county-owned nursing home at 4343 Kennedy Drive, East Moline. 

The former county nursing home, Oak Glen, became Hope Creek when a new facility was built in 2009.

The 245-bed center has struggled the past two years with crippling debt, fines from the Illinois Department of Public Health, and a declining number of residents, which resulted in sections of the home being closed. It was a sign of things to come when the county board voted in February to dissolve the Hope Creek advisory board.

County Administrator Jim Snider called Hope Creek's situation a "crisis" as the county struggled to cover expenses for the home, even using the county credit card to make payments. 

Vendors have threatened to withhold services unless bills were paid. Last year, the food vendor said it would stop making deliveries unless it was paid. In June, the nursing staffing agency, PRN Health Services, refused to provide nurses or aides unless it received $35,000.

Despite an analysis from Management Professional Associates that concluded the home could be turned around and kept under county ownership, the board voted 16-5 in June to cut its losses and put it on the market for $19 million. The sale price is almost enough to cover its outstanding mortgage of $12 million and debts of $7.5 million.

Rock Island residents reacted strongly against selling the facility. No buyer has appeared as of late December, and the home's future remains in limbo as it balances debt with keeping its doors open. 

— Sarah Hayden

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The entrance to Hope Creek Care Center is seen on June 20, 2019, in East Moline.

TBK Bank Sports Complex grows

Since its opening in Bettendorf in July 2018, the TBK Bank Sports Complex — and the area around it — has continued to grow.

Among openings in the area are the first Cambria hotel in Iowa, health-conscious restaurant Freshii, family restaurant Foundry Food + Tap, and athleisure boutique Red's Threads.

TBK Bank Sports Complex also hired a CEO

“If you bring a youth team in here, they can play basketball, then bowl between games, then go back and play basketball, then go have meals — and they never have to get in their car and leave,” CEO Dave Stow said in October. “As a parent, that’s amazing.”

— Matt Enright

Uniting Q-C's emergency radio system

Work is underway to design a new regional emergency radio system that for the first time would put emergency service agencies across Scott and Rock Island counties on a single radio system. 

After three years of planning and collaborating, a proposed Quad-City P25 Radio Project was approved by myriad bi-state governmental bodies, including city councils, county boards and emergency communications agencies. 

The estimated $17.6 million project will provide the new emergency radio infrastructure, much of which was at the end of its life. It will also help the region meet new federal standards that mandate digital mobile radio communications must be interoperable, or able to connect with one another. 

The new infrastructure will include radio towers, transmitting equipment, switches, servers and new software for the dispatch centers. It will serve the Scott Emergency Communications Center, or SECC, which provides consolidated dispatching in Scott County; RICOMM, which serves the city of Rock Island; the Rock Island County Sheriff's dispatch center; and QComm911, a newly consolidated 911 serving Moline, East Moline, Milan and Silvis.  

An agreement was signed in June with RACOM as the vendor. It will take 30 months for the system to be designed and installed.

— Jennifer DeWitt

Anderson 400 goes green

Under a sunshine-filled sky last summer, the future Anderson 400 business park earned credentials that will help transform it from a family farm to a modern business park. 

Nearly 150 guests, including Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and Iowa Economic Development Authority Director Debi Durham, gathered atop a windy hillside on the Princeton farm as the development project received its long-awaited IEDA designation as a green business park.

The plan is to develop the Anderson 400, owned by Paul and Marijo Anderson, now of Solon, Iowa, and the Anderson Trust, into a corporate business park while maintaining the natural beauty of the Mississippi River valley land.

It became the second Iowa site to earn the new green park certification and the first privately owned property. The first was Woodward (Iowa) Eco Business Park. 

Marijo Anderson, who has been the project manager, led a years-long process to have the property rezoned, and collaborated with architecture engineering firm Shive-Hattery to have it deemed shovel-ready. 

She said 285 of the park's more than 400 acres are available for development. The remainder will remain natural rolling hills, wetlands and woodlands, in keeping with the green park designation.

— Jennifer DeWitt

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Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and other dignitaries try to turn the first shovels of soil during The Anderson 400 Site Certification Ceremony overlooking the Mississippi River just off Highway 67 south of Princeton on Aug. 28, 2019. 

Massive fires in Illinois Q-C

The Illinois Quad-Cities saw two huge fires in the last half of 2019. No one was injured in either.

The first, Aug. 1 in East Moline, destroyed an apartment building and a business on the east side of East Moline’s downtown.

The fire began at about 11:45 a.m. in a second-floor apartment at 1116 15th Ave., according to the East Moline Fire Department. Firefighters from several departments battled it for hours, but the apartment building and a nearby business, Ed's Used Appliances, were heavily damaged.

In the weeks after the fire, the department said the fire started in the apartment living room before spreading to an attic and the apartment next door. The cause was undetermined as of late December, and it may remain that way

The second fire happened about 2 p.m. Nov. 25 in Silvis.

It started in a home at 332 8th St., which collapsed as firefighters battled the flames. Homes on each side — 320 8th St. and 336 8th St. — were heavily damaged.

Like the fire in East Moline, firefighters from multiple agencies battled the blaze for hours before putting it out.

The cause was undetermined as of late December, but the investigation is ongoing.

— Anthony Watt

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Firefighters battle a blaze that heavily damaged Ed's Appliances Aug. 1, 2019, at 1112 15th Ave., East Moline. 

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