Friday, September 23, 2016

COLUMN: Wal-Mart

I'm in no way, shape, or form qualified to discuss city planning. I know this because I'm really bad at Sim City.

In the popular computer simulation game, you become "mayor" of a virtual city that you create from the ground up. The goal is to grow your town into a thriving metropolis while staying within budget and keeping your little sim populace happy. Fiscal solvency is hard, and it's easy to allow your village to become rife with crime, congestion, and unhappy little sims that move away. If you do a bad enough job, you get a message that your Sim-citizens want to recall you out of office.

Usually when I reach this point in the game, I cease being a benevolent ruler and instead create a totalitarian hellscape from which no Sim can escape. If you hate living in my town NOW, just wait 'til I remove all the roads, close all nightlife, and drop minimum wage to $1 a day. An early version of the game had disaster scenarios including the local flood of '93. Your goal was to save downtown Davenport, but I found it much more cathartic to divert the floodwaters directly into the Sim homes of my ex-girlfriends over and over again.

The best I could ever muster in Sim City was turning a desolate dirt field into a barely functioning neighborhood. Still, this seems better than the leaders of Rock Island, whose primary accomplishment over the past four years has been turning a barely functioning neighborhood into a desolate dirt field.

When the mayor announced years ago that Wal-Mart was considering a new location on 11th Street, my initial reaction was, "Pfft. Yeah, THAT'LL happen." We already had the world's loneliest K-Mart on nearby Blackhawk Road, so why would Wal-Mart be any more of a success story? Still, I understood why city leaders got excited. That's a lot of inbound tax dollars to the city, so I never faulted city leaders for cheering the project on.

But I stopped cheering when the city began spending mad amounts of money prepping the space when there was no contract and no firm commitment. They levelled Watchtower Plaza, one of the most unique features of the entire 11th St. corridor. They took out the fire-damaged Town & Country Lanes, my favorite low-rent bowling alley ever. Several tax-paying businesses had to fold or relocate. And now, after umpteen contract extensions and a whole lotta talk, Wal-Mart has backed out, leaving Rock Island with a freshly minted dirt field that we taxpayers had the pleasure of spending an estimated 15 million dollars for. The mayor's blaming Wal-Mart, the aldermen are blaming the mayor, and we're the ones left reaching for the pocketbook.

Don't take what I'm about to say the wrong way. If there's one thing I hate, it's people who stereotype Rock Island as the ugly stepchild of the Quad Cities. I love Rock Island. It's been my home since 1988. Like any city, it has good parts and it has bad parts. There's a lot worse places to find oneself than the 11th St. corridor, but I think we can all admit it's not exactly Rodeo Drive. Once upon a time, when it was the only direct way to the cinemas in Milan, it was a bustling thoroughfare. These days, it's home mostly to shuttered buildings and "cash for gold"-type stores that become prevalent in economically depressed areas. The revitalization of 11th Street is going to need a team of experts, lots of meetings, and a pile of incentives to get off the ground. You can't just solve things by plopping a Wal-Mart in the middle of the mess.

Big box stores aren't a fix-all. They might be tax monsters, but they're also notoriously low wage payers. They're usually no friend of the environment. The Quad Cities is already littered with the shuttered skeletons of former big box retailers who pack up and leave the minute they can open a SUPER-big-box-store elsewhere. They hold all the cards, and that's why they can express interest in opening a new store and sit back while cities like Rock Island ruin themselves just to woo them.

Rock Island's almost as bad at Sim City as I am. When I first moved up here, the casino was supposed to be the big fix that revitalized downtown. But as soon as the casinos fought their way on land, Rock Island's was the first to hightail it out to the interstate, where the flood plain all but ensures no surrounding development. When Farmall closed, we were told that the Quad City Industrial Center would be the future of Rock Island manufacturing, but then no one moved in and it became just another decaying husk.

In the 90s, Rock Island nightlife was second to none. Blocks of thriving clubs, theaters, and eateries made The District THE place to be on any given weekend. But then the city decided to shift their downtown development towards lofts and family living while making it harder and harder for nightlife to flourish. But it was the nightlife that made people want to live in those lofts in the first place, and now The District is a shell of its former self.
So what should the city do with their fifteen million dollar weed-covered empty lot? Don't ask me, I stink at Sim City. If it was me, I'd rebuild the bowling alley, throw in a dance club and a concert venue, toss in a gaming center and a record store and I'd never leave. But if my ideal Shanetown won't work in Sim City, it probably won't here, either. Maybe its time the city went the bohemian route. Heck, lure Whole Foods to that empty lot and watch the entire neighborhood turn granola and hipster.

I don't know the best answers, but I'm not supposed to. This is why we elect officials who are supposed to know a thing or two about urban management. Rock Island leaders should have known better, and they'd better be pro-active at sorting out a new plan pronto. As I said from experience, if you let your Sims down too often, they just might vote you right out of office.

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