Investment comes to Davenport’s East Village

A new thrown-around nickname for the Village of East Davenport is "Little LeClaire."

Some Village merchants are cool with that. Others say the Village is too different from LeClaire to draw a comparison.

Either way, the redevelopment boon in the Village bears a striking likeness to the renaissance upriver.

Two obvious catalysts are the years-ago gut job of the 11th Street Precinct and the recent addition of a large residential component in Pierce School Lofts. Improvement, it would appear, begets improvement.

Whatever the source, the momentum in the Village is undeniable.

And there’s more in store.

What happened?

The man behind the counter at the new wine-tasting room at 12th and Mound streets shook businessman John Wisor’s hand and asked, “Are you the mayor of the Village?”

Wisor threw both hands in the air, as if he was being robbed.

“No, no, no!” he insisted. “I’m just trying to get things done around here.”

And it’s working.

About 10 years ago, Wisor came to town to take a chance.

The sixth of seven children from a farm north of the Quad-Cities brought his money and his ideas to the Village of East Davenport at a time when it needed the attention. Few were investing there, and Wisor chose a jumping-off project that was among the most desperate for attention.

The 11th Street Precinct got a complete makeover, and Wisor rehabbed the neighboring warehouse, which now is the Herb Cellar. His demolition of a home on Jersey Ridge Road — on the east side of the Village — met with considerable resistance from historic preservationists. It ultimately resulted in the construction of his personal residence, which this year is assessed at nearly $750,000, county records show.

Most recently, Wisor demolished two dilapidated cottages on 12th Street, just below the new Pierce School Lofts, and has plans for a two-story building that will accommodate two businesses and two apartments with river views.

“He turned what was a popular place for a tenderloin into a nice lunch crowd and a busy night spot with live music at the Precinct,” said Tom Lagomarcino, who helps run his family’s confectionery in the East Village. “What he’s done has been great for the Village.”

Davenport city planner Matt Flynn also gives Wisor credit for helping nudge the Village along.

“He’s the one stepping up and investing,” Flynn said. “He’s been frustrated at times by the process, but he’s a doer.”

Wisor could have taken the telecom money he earned working around the world for Motorola to any corner of the globe. So, why the East Village?

“It looked like there was potential here, and no one was doing anything,” he said with a shrug. “I came from a farm near here, and I owned rental property in Bettendorf. I saw a lot of potential in the Village. I still do.”

He has no problem with the “Little LeClaire” comparison.

“I think we need to be more like them,” he said. “They understand you can build new, and it will fit in and have character. The city gets credit, too, and I think we’re on the same page now.”

Along came Pierce

The old school above the East Village had a tough life.

It hasn’t functioned as a school for more than 75 years, and its brief life as a “mini mall” about 30 years ago was underwhelming.

One wannabe developer was indicted by the feds for fraud and money laundering, and the building was offered for sale on eBay in 2007.

For years and years, there it sat — ugly window-unit air conditioners poking out of historic, oversized windows.

Then 2015 happened.

Developers Tim Baldwin and Pat Sherman put together a $10 million financing package to match their confidence that the Village of East Davenport could support a sizable residential component.

Just two months after Pierce School Lofts opened this summer, all 41 units were rented.

“Actually, that’s what we expected, but we’re glad we were right,” Baldwin said. “It really was about common sense. There was no quantity of housing in the Village but plenty of great housing around it.”

Flynn, the city planner, said the school’s overhaul has been another game-changer.

“I always envisioned and hoped Pierce School would be a catalyst,” he said. “This isn’t just some quaint neighborhood. It’s a legitimate, productive commercial district ... with a smart residential component.

“It’s a bona fide neighborhood commercial district that’s different from LeClaire because of its sizable, and increasingly immediate, population.”

From his place behind the chocolate counter and soda fountain, Lagomarcino has watched for nearly 20 years as the Village has evolved. While he can appreciate the likeness to LeClaire, he said, the Village has a distinct identity.

“I think we’re our own thing,” he said. “Do we learn from places like that? You bet.

“But here’s the distinction: We’re part of a bigger city. We have a much bigger population to draw from, but we also compete for economic-development dollars.

“Pierce School is huge for us. They had the vision and the money to take probably the biggest commercial property in the East Village. For them to do that and turn it into first-class apartments, fitting in with the flavor of the historic district, is just great. Seeing them rent so quickly says a lot.

“We now have people enjoying the Village and living here, too.”

Hammers are pounding

Make no mistake: It has taken more than an overhauled restaurant and renovated school to make the East Village a legitimate commercial contender.

Around the same time Wisor was gutting the Precinct, the popular little Village Corner Deli, kitty-corner from the Precinct, also was opening its doors. Gift and home-decor shops, a hair salon and bank keep the Village in business right up to River Drive. Behind Southwest Bank at Mound and River Drive, businessman Gregg Ontiveros owns the large empty parcel.

Although Ontiveros did not respond to inquiries about the property, Flynn said he is aware of work on Ontiveros’ part to “put together a development deal that might involve other properties he doesn’t control.”

Across Mound Street, the peeling green paint on the Village Market Place is being scraped away and repainted. And the big old bar and restaurant at the corner of Mound and 11th Street is reopening under a familiar name: The Mound.

Both northward and eastward in the Village, projects are in various stages of conversion.

Old taverns along 11th Street have added outdoor patios and fresh facades that complement the historic vibe. Look to Grumpy’s as one example. The most dramatic, however, is the overhaul of Rudy’s Tacos into a two-story cantina with a rooftop deck.

The former Allard Jewelry, also on 11th, is soon to reopen as a clothing store. Across the street, the city is putting the finishing touches on a new lighted basketball court next to the well-used baseball and softball diamond. And the neighboring Edward Jones/Paul Schnell building just got a new facade that also flatters the Village vibe.

Lagomarcino pointed to the corner of 11th Street and Jersey Ridge Road as another example of growth. On one corner is the hipster hangout, Brew, and across Jersey Ridge is McClellan’s Commons. The multi-unit commercial building has long been in transition, but Lagomarcino said it finally has found footing.

“Three tenants on that corner — Freddy’s Fritters, Revolution (consignment shop) and (Camp McClellan) the cellar — are in a place that was underutilized and always had big turnover,” he said. “Now there’s curb appeal and much less turnover, and that’s key, because it’s part of our gateway.”

Back at Mound Street, heading north, three new businesses have reclaimed cottages, including Wide River Winery and the under-construction Cobalt Coffee and Baked, a sister to Brew.

Next to the empty lots that will house Wisor’s next project, a Michigan-based nurse practitioner is opening Weekend Clinic. She also has rented an apartment at Pierce School Lofts.

Call it Little LeClaire. Call it the Village boon.

For merchants making a go of it, it’s about a historic neighborhood that is coming into its own.

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