Tourism magnet is over the wall

Friday, July 11, 2003

Thursday I passed a tour bus at Broadway and Sprigg Street in downtown Cape Girardeau. A tour guide was talking into a microphone while 40 or 50 visiting tourists gazed out the windows of the bus.

I couldn't hear what the tour guide was saying, of course. I tried to think what I would tell a busload of visitors to our city.

"This is Cape Girardeau's historic downtown. Don't mind the litter, or the weeds growing in the cracks of the sidewalks or the empty storefronts with their dirty windows. And there's a river over there. Somewhere."

Several times since the Convention and Visitors Bureau announced it had hired a Nashville consultant to help come up with a logo and catchy slogan, I've wondered how important it is to Cape Girardeau to identify its tourism magnet.

Some city officials say an objective assessment by out-of-towners who don't have an agenda will help the city put its finger on its pulse. I think that's true. Let me hastily add that Cape Girardeau doesn't always make a good first impression. But give this town long enough and you'll one day say to yourself, "Why didn't I move here sooner?"

I speak from experience. In early 1994, I came to Cape Girardeau to look the town over. It didn't help that a late-winter storm had dumped several inches of snow -- so much, in fact, that street crews had piled most of the snow into huge piles along the sidewalks and even down the middle of the street. You know what happens to plowed snow after a couple of days. It turns gray, then black. And it turns into slush.

What I recall is that a slushy downtown Cape Giraradeau in the grip of winter doesn't scream "Drop everything and move here!"

My wife and I came back for another look in April. The dogwoods were just starting to bloom. The sun was shining. Our mood improved considerably. We decided to make Cape Girardeau our new hometown.

Unfortunately, the week we arrived in town with all our worldly possessions on a moving van was the week of the Big Heat Inversion. I don't know the scientific details, but the sky was the color of a dead fish's underbelly. The air was oppressively heavy and did not move at all. The temperatures and humidity were having a race to see which could climb higher. We could hardly breathe. Allergies we never had before began to rage.

Ah, said the natives. Summer.

We wondered if we should just get back on the interstate and keep driving. Somewhere. Anywhere.

Fortunately, we stayed. We discovered that summer in Cape is the price you pay for spring and autumn. I can think of few places I'd rather be for those two seasons. Winter can be -- but isn't always -- a mess, but to avoid it you would have to live in a desert or along the coast of a gulf that has about as much surf as Lake Wappapello.

We soon discovered the comforts of living here. And the people. We found we weren't among strangers.

In the past few weeks, my wife and I have visited some other towns along the Mississippi River. Clarksville and Louisiana, Mo., north of St. Louis and Natchez, Miss., north of New Orleans are among the most memorable. They don't have floodwalls. They celebrate the river.

Cape Girardeau, on the other hand, is the town where brush along Aquamsi Street obscures the view of the most exciting thing to happen here in a long time: construction of the new bridge.

If Cape Girardeau wants tourists, it has to find a way to reconnect with the river. I hope for our $42,000 we get some good ideas.

R. Joe Sullivan is the editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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