Marla Mills: Sparking the downtown

Tuesday, October 24, 2006
Marla Mills, the new executive director of Old Town Cape. (Don Frazier)

If you see a woman sitting on the back of a Harley tooling around the Cape Girardeau County countryside, there's an off chance it may be Marla Mills.

"That may surprise people about me," Mills said in early October, 2 1/2 weeks after she assumed her newest role as executive director of Old Town Cape. "My husband has a Harley and we went on a 10-day motorcycle trip with him. We went 3,300 miles."

But those are weekends. On almost any given weekday, Mills will be found in downtown Cape Girardeau, planning to make the Old Town Cape district better.

Business Today sat down with Mills in her new downtown office to discuss her new job, immediate plans and the future of the downtown business district.

BT: Old Town Cape's first search for an executive director went awry a bit, with the board settling on someone and then that person declining the job. How did you end up with the job? Were you approached?

Mills: I was approached by the board. It took me a little while to go through the process because I was happy at the United Way. I wasn't looking. I felt really good about what I was doing. But what drew me here was the job and what the organization does and their mission. It's a really exciting time to be down here.

BT: What is the climate of the district?

Mills: The climate is ... let me think of the right word ... it seems like there's an excited anticipation. I think overall, the community has seen a lot of changes and a lot of good things happening. Also, they know there's a lot more to come. Especially after getting DREAM. (Editor's Note: In September, Cape Girardeau was selected by the state as one of 10 communities to participate in the Downtown Revitalization and Economic Assistance for Missouri, which will pump resources and -- eventually -- money into the Old Town Cape district.) There's just so much potential.

BT: There was some confusion at first, I think, about what DREAM was and what it would do.

Mills: We're still not exactly sure. But we know the first phase is not money. It's access to resources, experts and consultants. Specifically, access to urban planners. Cape's application had to identify areas that needed to be addressed. Ours named the Good Hope-Haarig district, Broadway and the downtown riverfront.

BT: What's the first step?

Mills: The urban planners will help us get a little more coordinated, comprehensive plan with all the stake-holders. And this is not a prescriptive plan. We want to look at all the possibilities. Any work should reflect the wishes of the city, also those people who live and work there. We just want to take a look at the overall area. The last thing we want are strict plans. We want to develop in a way that is good for everyone.

BT: Enough about DREAM. What do you see some challenges of your new job?

Mills: Haarig-Good Hope probably presents the most challenges. It was listed first on the DREAM application. Now is the time to address it, up front. Even if DREAM hadn't happened, that's the one that really does need some work.

BT: What does downtown need that it doesn't have?

Mills: The merchants downtown have done a wonderful job, really. But if we want people living downtown, it needs some things to make it usable, some amenities. It probably needs a small market, a pharmacy maybe. Some things so people can tend to their basic needs without leaving the district. But, overall, from what I see, it isn't really sorely lacking in anything.

BT: What do you see your job as being?

Mills: A couple of things. First off, Old Town Cape has a board of 17 people and they have wonderful ideas and a lot of energy. They all are business owners, teachers. My job is helping them implement their ideas and carry the message and promote the Old Town Cape district.

Meet Marla Mills

Age: 47

Position: Executive director, Old Town Cape

Experience: Mills has 17 years of experience working for not-for-profit organizations. Before taking this job, Mills worked almost four years as assistant director of the Area Wide United Way. During the mid-80s, Mills worked for the Missouri State Troopers Association in Mid-Missouri.

Education: Bachelor's in business administration, Lincoln University in Jefferson City

Personal: Married to husband, Terry, for 26 years; daughter, Tara

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