Downtown merchants raise funds in auction

Wednesday, February 26, 2003

Mardi Gras is the theme of the Downtown Merchants Association's annual fund-raising auction Saturday, but Christmas will be on the minds of many downtown business owners.

The auction, in its 16th year, will feature dozens of donated items to be sold to the lowest bidder -- including the ultimate prize: an $8,000 mink coat.

But even if the group raises the full $20,000 that it hopes to, it wouldn't be nearly enough to fund one of its primary goals: buying new Christmas decorations, as well as paying for the many downtown improvements the association oversees each year.

"This is mainly to refill our coffers for the things we do," said Chuck McGinty, association president and co-owner of McGinty Jewelers. "But we're not idiots, we know the decorations look terrible."

The auction will be held Saturday at Port Cape Girardeau. Admission is $10. The auction will start at 8 p.m. but will be prefaced by a silent auction when the doors open at 6 p.m. Port Cape is providing the food.

The new Christmas decorations would cost about $50,000, the association estimates. There's no way, McGinty said, that the group with roughly 35 active members would be able to generate that kind of money. Not to mention that the group already pays for beautification projects like cleanup, brick crosswalks, flower plantings, benches and historic signage.

Each Christmas, the association pays to have decorations put up. But the swags workers string across Broadway and Main streets are aging. Red bows are faded and ball ornaments have turned from red to orange. Wreaths are missing greenery in patches, leaving wires exposed, which can cause shorts in the bulbs.

"Last year, I voted not to put the decorations up at all," McGinty said. "They look so terrible, I voted to leave them down. The board voted against me, but that's the way I'm going to vote this year too."

McGinty said the group wants to approach the city about helping out with covering the costs of new decorations. McGinty said the city should donate some money or show the association ways to come up with the money, such as low-interest loans or grants.

Mayor Jay Knudtson said he has spoken with downtown merchants and realizes the need to improve the quality of the decorations. Knudtson said using money from the city's budget, already tight, is "not up for discussion."

But Knudtson said he was eager to pursue some partnership, including asking the Convention and Visitors Bureau to find some funding mechanisms to pay for Christmas decorations.

"In my mind, the decorations would clearly fall under the CVB," Knudtson said.

Overused decorations

Jayne Ervin, president of Jayson Jewelers and treasurer of downtown merchants, said the decorations are more than 10 years old and were probably used five years longer than they should have been.

"They're worn out," she said. "They've been through ice storms, knocked down by semis. Over the years, they've taken a lot of abuse."

She said there's a 50-50 chance the decorations won't be put up this year. She said putting up the decorations is also very labor-intensive. If the merchants buy new decorations, they may look entirely different and not include decorations that cross the street.

Dionne Hoffmeister, who is the auction's organizer and a pharmacy technician at Medicap, said the new decorations could be phased in. Broadway could be decorated one year and Main Street the next, for example.

Regardless of whether the money is raised for new Christmas decorations, Hoffmeister said the association sorely needs money that will be raised from the auction, which also will feature $100 gift certificates, newspaper subscriptions, ceiling fans, prints from local art galleries, jewelry and even free eye exams and income tax preparation. In fact, every downtown business donates something to the auction.

"The things that are done downtown are not done by the city," Hoffmeister said. "People think they are, but it's done by the association."

Hoffmeister said that last year 200 people attended the auction. This year, people are encouraged to dress in Mardi Gras costumes and to bring beads.

335-6611, extension

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