Cape Girardeau mayor tackles issues with fine touch

Wednesday, March 22, 2006
Jay Knudtson displays favorite photographs on a wall in his office at First Missouri State Bank in Cape Girardeau. (Fred Lynch)

In 1989, a U-Haul truck rumbled into Cape Girardeau carrying with it an ambitious Minnesota businessman who at first thought he was being transferred to the East Coast.

Jay Knudtson was climbing the corporate ladder and taking relocations along with promotions regardless of where they were, thinking his stay in Cape Girardeau would be temporary.

Then two things happened. Boatmen's Bank offered him a job, and he met Cindy Cantrell while both were serving on the Easter Seals board. He took the job and married her.

"Those two things made it clear to me that I had found my home," he said.

Knudtson became involved in the community making a name for himself on the Park Board and in banking and business circles. In 2002, then-Mayor Al Spradling had served the two consecutive terms he was limited to, and several people approached Knudtson to run.

"My first reaction was 'Are you kidding me?'" he said. "I did not have political aspirations. I'm really not a politician. A lot of politics disgusts me."

But city elections are non-partisan and the idea was tempting. Now Knudtson is running for his second term as mayor. He's also since left Nation's Bank and is now vice president at First Missouri State Bank.

Looking back on the past four years, he said if he were giving himself a grade, it would be a B. He went in with three objectives and he met them, he said. But those three objectives -- to unite the community, to ensure the city's financial stability and improve the safety of the city -- are fundamental goals. Now he wants to work on other improvements to nudge Cape Girardeau over the top in quality of life for its residents.

"Why did I give myself only a B?" he asked. "I'm hard on myself. I have high expectations. I look forward to sitting down with you four years from now and being able to rate myself an A."

Four years ago, Knudtson said, a rift separated the city administration and certain business developers. Any communication between the two was done through lawyers in court, he said. That's all changed now, Knudtson said.

"You don't have to agree on everything, but you darn sure have to be able to sit at a table and talk about it," he said.

The city administration, under Knudtson's leadership, also began curtailing city spending. Recently a Standard & Poor financial review came in with an A rating. Many accomplishments are intangible, Knudtson said, but that A rating is "a tangible return on the kind of job the city is doing."

Knudtson's biggest moment as mayor with the passage of the sales tax for fire and police departments. Knudtson said he sees the 80 percent approval from the voters as a show of support and confidence for the police officers and firefighters whose morale, like their salaries, was at that time at an all-time low.

Currently the retail climate is good with new businesses popping up like mushrooms after a rain. Looking ahead, Knudtson said it's now time for the city to look at expanding its residential properties through annexation. First on the agenda will be a strategic plan, which the city has not had for nearly 20 years. Once the city has a plan in place and knows where it wants to go, then it will begin talking to property owners and developers outside the city limits to offer them good reasons to annex into the city limits.

"There is always going to be a number of people who are not going to welcome annexation," Knudtson said. "It is up to us to earn their trust."

The mayor said the pieces are all in place to make it happen with the city council and city manager Doug Leslie and what he calls their trustworthy leadership. One of the intangible benefits he says he brings to the city is that he has no connections to any "good ol' boy" networks. Being a non-native has helped him bring a freshness to city leadership.

"Although I still don't say 'y'all' and I struggle with 'fixin'," he said.

From a Northern native who once was a professional hockey coach, he has evolved into a banking and civic leader big on Southeast Missouri. Knudtson now says Cape Girardeau is his community, where as mayor he hopes to bring up his grade from B to A.

But then he adds, "A B ain't bad."

Meet Jay Knudtson

Occupation: Vice President First Missouri State Bank

Age: 42

Family: Married. Wife, Cindy Cantrell Knudtson; son, Gunnar, age 12

Born: Rochester, Minn.

Education: University of Minnesota, bachelor of individual studies

Hobbies: Riding Harley-Davidson motorcycles, camping, hunting, fishing, golf, coaching his son's baseball team

Organizations: Board of Trustees at Southeast Missouri Hospital, Noon Lions Club, former executive member Chamber of Commerce, Elks, Harley Owners Group

Church: LaCroix United Methodist Church

Greatest Fear: Letting people down, not being a champion for them.

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