New director for Old Town Cape assumes role

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Stepping into an empty office as the only full-time employee of an organization with the goal of revitalizing downtown Cape Girardeau can be a little nerve-wracking.

But as Marla Mills took on the role as the new director of Old Town Cape Monday she didn't feel the pressure. "I'm excited. It's been really fun and interesting so far. Everyone from a business leader to the window cleaner has been coming into the office today, so I'm already meeting people and learning a lot about what the job will mean," she said.

She acknowledged the director post is going to be different from her last job as assistant director of United Way. At Old Town Cape the board members mostly have other full-time jobs. Aside from college work-study students, the Independence Street office is generally empty.

"When I came in yesterday I was the only one here, so I was joking, 'Well I found the lights and I found the bathroom, so that was an achievement,'" she said.

But she isn't too worried about getting lonely in the cluttered offices. "I feel like a lot of what I have to do is to mix and get to know the people in this district," she said. "So if I feel like I'm getting lonely or I need that contact I can go out and meet downtown merchants and stakeholders because part of this position is not only knowing those people but checking in on a regular basis."

Former director Tim Arbeiter, who left in the spring for a chamber of commerce job, says Mills is on the right track. "It's all about the relationships. Getting to know individuals working and living downtown is what makes it a great job because there are so many wonderful people."

Mills inherits an organization with an approximately $155,000 annual budget, one that has seen both successes and setbacks in recent years. Successes include a net growth of 15 new businesses downtown, 23 building renovations and 2,350 volunteer hours all in 2005.

But setbacks have also been noticeable. The downtown restaurants Gatherings, Sidewalk Sandwich Co., Mollie's, Nick's Sports Pub and the bar LoDo's have either closed or changed ownership in 2006.

In July, the city of Cape Girardeau denied Old Town Cape's request for a raise in funding from $20,000 to $40,000 annually.

The vacant director's post -- Heather Haynes filled in on a part-time basis -- has also meant reduced activity in 2006.

Old Town Cape president Dr. Stephen Hoffman says Mills presents an excellent opportunity for a fresh start. "She can look at things with fresh eyes, and I've specifically asked her to come in questioning why we do certain things in the hopes we can improve what we do," he said. "We're not going to saddle her with something like, 'The wagon's loaded, just pull.' We want her to look at things from a fresh perspective."

Mills says she's ready. Planning is underway for the Christmas Parade of Lights to take place in December. She says early on she'll take most of her cues from the board of directors, but one thing will definitely be done her way. She doesn't want to move things around in the office completely but said, "I tend to be a real organized person with my papers and even just my details."

Earlier she reiterated Hoffman's hope that she can give a different perspective on things. "I look at it as an opportunity to make sure that the organization is moving in the right direction, to reevaluate and change if things need to be changed. That can be really good if everyone is open to looking through a new lens," she said.

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