The Galleria ghost

Monday, August 8, 2005

If you're old enough, say your 60s, you probably think of the building at 2001 Independence in Cape Girardeau as the old Kroger Family Center, the grocery store that opened to much fanfare in 1969.

Maybe for the 13 years that it was there, you did your food shopping amidst the wide, well-lit aisles and extensive grocery selections. Maybe you just stopped in to get a refreshing feel of that rarity of rarities -- air conditioning.

If you're a little younger, maybe your 30s or 40s, perhaps you think of that large building as the Plaza Galleria, which it became in 1984 after the Kroger closed, victim to increased competition and an unwillingness by union workers to take a pay cut.

Did you ever take your kids to tie on skates at the ice rink, the only one of its kind between St. Louis and Memphis? Did you ever grab a bite at Taco Amigo or a fruit-flavored drink at Orange Peeler?

No matter how you remember the building, you can't deny that the 56,450-square-foot structure was a vibrant part of Cape Girardeau's business scene for decades.

Not anymore.

Once there were more than 20 businesses inside the Plaza Galleria from restaurants and bars to children's clothing and home decor, but now it sits empty.

The ice skating rink closed in 2003. The last tenant, Pockets, a small pool hall and tavern, closed last month to relocate to another spot on Independence Street.

"I just wanted something bigger and better," said owner Carol Littge, noting that the building is no longer in the best shape.

That leaves the once promising building a ghost of its former self.

"It's very sad to see it like this," said Dr. Frank Nickell, director of the Center for Regional History at Southeast Missouri State University. "That was a wonderful store. It was the biggest store in town. People came from a wide area to buy food from Kroger."

When it was Plaza Galleria, it was equally popular at first, he said. People worked in offices, spent money in shops and ate in restaurants.

"There was always a magnetism about that place," he said.

Nickell suggests that it's empty now because soû much of the city's development is taking place downtown and on the city's western edge, leaving it in a central no-man's landû.

But Nickell ûthinks that the building can be a magnetic, successful place again.

So does commercial broker Tom Kelsey, who has been commissioned by the building's owners -- C.R. and Betty Talbert -- to sell the building to someone who wants to restore it to its former glory. The Talberts bought the building in 1983 and converted it to the Plaza Galleria.

It's been on the market since May 2004 and is listed at $2.2 million.

Kelsey says the building could be redeveloped into a large business or cut up into smaller shops. He pointed out that the 6.85 acres of property includes the vast parking area that is closer to Independence Street frontage.

"It can be done," Kelsey said of redeveloping the building. "But it's going to take someone stepping up with the capital to do some of the things that need to be done. This building has a lot going for it."

It's not out of the question, Kelsey said, that the building could be torn down to make way for a newer building, he said. He doesn't have any trouble seeing free-standing restaurants or another strip mall in an area that he says occupies an excellent location.

"It's flexible for a lot of different type of uses," he said. "It's a lot of building for the money. The challenge is going to be finding somebody to believe in the project enough to step up."

Cape Girardeau Chamber of Commerce president John Mehner said that the building was malleable for many years.

"For a long time, it made change to change to change to change," Mehner said. "It evolved with the times. The question is: Has it evolved itself out of usefulness? I don't think it has. With the right developer, it could become something useful. You just need to find the right use."

People who used to work or shop there also would like to see the building become important again.

Tom Harte started My Daddy's Cheesecake there in 1987, which he later moved downtown and eventually sold.

"When we were there, it was really quite nice," Harte said. "It was a thriving place. At the time it opened, there was nothing quite like it in Cape Girardeau."

Harte said it's hard to believe that it's empty.

"It's just a shame when a big facility like that shuts down," he said. "You wonder what's going to happen to it. You just don't know the future."

Tamara Niedbalski worked in the Plaza Galleria starting in 1987, part-time in the business office. She went on to run the skating rink.

"It was extremely busy," she said. "The ice skating rink was in its full bloom. It wasn't uncommon to have 200-250 people during a public session."

Niedbalski said she hopes someone buys it and restores it.

"It's sad, I spent my whole working career there," she said. "There were a lot of memories made there. I hope somebody can make it like it once was."

335-6611, extension 137


* Oct. 25, 1968: After operating in various spots in Cape Girardeau since about 1922, the final legal steps are taken toward the construction of the new $1.5 million Kroger grocery store at Independence and Plaza Way. The store will be situated on eight acres and promises enough parking for 400 cars. Construction begins the next day.

n June 1969: Newspaper reports say that the opening of the Kroger Family Center cements Cape Girardeau as the retail mecca of Southeast Missouri. The store features wide aisles, merchandise in open displays and 12 cash lanes. The store is big enough to house a football field, Southeast Missourian reporter G.D. Fronabarger notes. Also, it's air conditioned! The store opens June 10 to a jammed parking lot and a packed store. Four uniformed policemen handle the traffic.

* Oct. 19, 1976: After three months of remodeling, an expanded Kroger Sav-On opens. The Kroger in Cape Girardeau becomes the largest store in the national chain of 1,200 stores and employs 200 workers.

* Sept. 17, 1982: In light of declining sales and failed talks with union employees to take a pay cut, Kroger announces that the store is for sale.

* Oct. 29, 1982: Kroger Sav-on, one of largest food stores in Cape Girardeau, will shut its doors at close of business Nov. 27, officials at Kroger's corporate offices in St. Louis confirm. The closing date is almost 60 years to the day after Kroger opened its first store here.

* April 1984: After being purchased by Dr. C.R. Talbert and his wife, Betty, in 1983, construction begins on a new ice skating rink and retail outlet in the building, which gets a face lift, including the glass atrium on the front.

* July 1984: The Plaza Galleria opens. The new center is occupied by a 11,200-square-foot ice rink, or about 160 feet long and 70 feet wide. An advertisement for the new gallery boasts more than 20 retail stores. It also notes the Gallery of eight Convenience Food Shops. Some of the businesses were Taco Amigo, a Mexican restaurant, and Orange Peeler, a juice shop.

* June 1985: It is announced that Andrew's, a 10,000-square-foot upscale restaurant, has opened in the Plaza Galleria. Andrew's, open seven days a week, offers a main dining room and lounge area that faces the ice. The restaurant and lounge would seat 250 people.

* June 1987: For the first time, a competition called the Heartland Invitational is held in Cape Girardeau at the ice skating rink, involving 31 skaters from the Cape Girardeau area and a total of about 80.

* October 1987: Plaza Galleria expands its office and retail spaces. The businesses include the Fantastics, Kid Konnection, Terrace Restaurant, The Blue Whale Lounge, Galleria Banquet Room, Sub DeLites and others.

* 2003: The ice rink closes. Some reports say that it is only temporary, but the rink closes for good. Meanwhile, many businesses and offices, by this time, are also gone.

* July 2, 2005: Pockets, the last business still operating at the Plaza Galleria, closes its pool hall and tavern, leaving the once vibrant retail building empty for the first time in decades.

-- From staff reports

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