Posted Online: March 20, 2013, 5:37 pm

RI mayoral candidates question cost of city's development plans near Jumer's

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By Eric Timmons, etimmons@qconline.com

The Rock Island City Council's decision to spend $1 million on 90 acres of land close to Jumer's that the city doesn't have permission to develop is drawing criticism from two mayoral candidates.

Rick Cassini and David Levin are running against current mayor Dennis Pauley in the April 9 local election. At a forum Wednesday, both criticized the council's decision to buy the land at Illinois 92 and Interstate 280. Mr. Pauley supported the decision.

"It occurs to me that $11,000 an acre for land in a floodplain is a rather steep price," said Mr. Cassini, a Rock Island businessman.

The council voted in February to buy the property from RiverStone Group Inc., Moline, which had planned to use it the site as a sand and gravel pit.

RiverStone's plans for the site ran aground when it met with opposition from local residents and government bodies whose permission is needed to modify the levee at the site.

Now, Rock Island's plan to feed off traffic generated by Jumer's and develop a retail and residential hub at the site could encounter similar hurdles.

The city's proposal would push the levee at the site back, which needs permission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Milan's village board and the Big Island River Conservancy District.

"Why spend $1 million on Big Island when the residents are against it," Mr. Levin said. "If a developer wants to get into the liability, let them do it."

Mr. Levin, a real estate agent, also questioned the wisdom of pushing the project without first ensuring the site could be developed.

RiverStone's plan for the site got tied up in the courts in 2005 when a federal judge dismissed the company's request that the U.S. Corps of Engineers approve the project. RiverStone wanted to run a slurry pipe through the levee.

Although the Corps reviewed RiverStone's site plan and determined it would not weaken the levee, the Corps gave the Milan and the conservancy district final approval, and both had already denied the request to modify the levee, saying the project could harm private wells.

At Wednesday's invitation-only forum for Rock Island candidates at the Quad City Botanical Center, organized by Renaissance Rock Island, Mr. Pauley defended the city's plan for Big Island.

He said the $6 million in annual revenue the city receives from the gaming tax at Jumer's could "quickly drop down to $2 million or $3 million" in the face of increased competition.

For that reason, spending $1 million now to secure land close to Jumer's for future development that would complement Jumer's and grow the city's tax base was a "very good investment."

A consultant hired by the city already has drawn up plans for the site, which included space for a big box store, smaller commercial spaces and residential units at the site.

City officials cautioned that seeking permission from the Corps for alterations to the levee called for in the plan, could take months.