River Campus ready to go despite lawsuits

Tuesday, March 11, 2003

P In less than five years, the idea for a special arts campus overlooking the Mississippi has gone from dream to ready for preliminary construction. Funding issues remain to be resolved.

In some ways, the beginning of the River Campus project in Cape Girardeau seems like such a long time ago. In reality, the idea was born less than five years ago. Since then, a great deal has happened, but construction has yet to start.

In May 1998, B.W. Harrison gave Southeast Missouri State University a sizable gift of stock -- enough to pay for the university's purchase of the former St. Vincent's Seminary property across Morgan Oak Street from Harrison's home. The old Roman Catholic seminary, which had been closed for several years, is a prime piece of property located between the old Mississippi River bridge and the new Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge that is due to open in several months. The property affords a commanding view of the river.

University officials, led by the vision of then-president Dale Nitzschke, saw the potential of turning the property into a campus for the visual and performing arts. In addition to classrooms and studios, the campus would include a performance hall and museum. Those plans have grown to include an official Missouri visitors center for travelers coming into the state across the new bridge.

Funding efforts

At the time, the cost of developing the so-called River Campus was approximately $36 million. Efforts began to secure funding, with half to be appropriated by the Missouri Legislature, a fourth to be raised by the university's foundation and a fourth to be raised by the sale of city bonds which would be paid off with revenue from the city's hotel-motel-restaurant sales tax.

Later in 1998, Cape Girardeau voters were asked to approve two ballot issues: a revenue bond issue and authorization to use the sales tax revenue. Both issues were approved by a majority of the city's voters, but the bond issue required a four-sevenths supermajority, which it did not receive. After the vote, the city and university learned a state agency could issue the bonds without a vote, and they agreed to use these bonds and pay them off with the voter-approved sales-tax revenue.

Businessman Jim Drury made two attempts, through lawsuits, to prevent the city from participating in the River Campus project unless voters were given another opportunity to approve the new funding plan. Courts in both cases rejected his arguments.

Ready to start

Plans to go forward with the River Campus have been delayed by the time-consuming lawsuits. But now there are components of the project that are ready to get under way. The university is set to proceed with design work for a new Fountain Street corridor that would form the River Campus' western boundary. The city is ready to construct the corridor. The street would connect the new bridge and the city's downtown area as well as provide a main entrance for the River Campus.

Drury's attorney says the timing of this third lawsuit, which again objects to using city revenue to pay off state-issued bonds, has nothing to do with a decision last week by the university's regents to proceed. Instead, Walter S. Drusch, the lawyer, said Drury questions the city council's judgment in agreeing to retire $8.9 million of bonds (at a cost of $19 million over 20 years) at a time when city voters are being asked in April to approve four tax and fee issues.

The lawsuit also challenges the use of hotel-motel-restaurant tax revenue to fund the Convention and Visitors Bureau. This new issue appears not to be connected with the River Campus project.

Enthusiasm growing

Even without this latest Drury lawsuit, the River Campus still has another hurdle: the availability of state funding. While the legislature has been inclined to authorize the money, tight state budgets for the last two years and into the foreseeable future raise doubts that the major portion of the funding will be available any time soon. According to university officials, however, the bulk of state funding will not be necessary for a few years.

Meanwhile, there is a sense of growing enthusiasm for the River Campus as university participants get more involved in the planning processes and as businesses, particularly in the downtown area, see the potential for revival and growth in the city's most historic area.

The challenge for the judge hearing this latest lawsuit will be to separate questions that are germane to the future of the River Campus from those that raise issues that have popular appeal but little to do with what the River Campus hopes to accomplish.

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