Ten merchants from downtown Cape Girardeau met at city hall Wednesday morning to speak with Mayor Jay Knudtson, city manager Doug Leslie and police chief Carl Kinnison.
The topic at hand was petty vandalism and how to stop it. Answers included police patrols, surveillance and better lighting.
Knudtson told the merchants they had a "captive audience" in the city leaders and encouraged them to speak freely about what's ailing them. He said the merchants deserve most of the credit for downtown's recent renaissance.
"I'm not sure I could have made the financial commitment in your place. You're doing it for a lot of non-financial reasons," Knudtson said.
Merchants were unanimous in their praise of downtown as a place to live and work, but they complained about mindless vandalism that often occurs late at night after retail shops are closed. It's a time when police are responding to calls throughout the city, and drinkers leaving bars and pool halls can wreak havoc.
Vandalism includes breaking windows, ripping down decorations, dumping flower pots and smashing beer bottles.
Kinnison said the span between 12:30 and 2 a.m. is the busiest time for crime both downtown and throughout the city.
"It's hard for us to be able to dedicate two officers to the area with all the things going on at other parts of town," he said.
But Knudtson believes police presence is the biggest deterrent to late-night mischief.
"From the time we've been young children, hopefully we've been smart enough to know you don't do anything wrong if a policeman is around," he said.
Getting police officers dedicated solely to downtown may require merchants pooling funds, though. One suggestion is to pay off-duty officers to patrol the streets during hours of high crime. Kinnison will make a cost estimate of this idea and return it to city staff and Old Town Cape in the next 60 days.
"These policemen cannot be funded entirely by the city," Knudtson said. "Because if it is, you'll be hearing from the mall and Siemers Drive, because they'll all tell you they need extra security. We need to figure out a way to have this be a true partnership with stakeholders."
Some business owners are ready to step up. "If we're as concerned as we say we are, I think Carl should submit that budget to this group and if we're serious, we'll see if we can pay for it," said Steve Bradford of Pyramid Home Care at 18 N. Main St.
Others pushed surveillance equipment.
"That's my next step," said Barry Robinson, owner of Cup 'N' Cork at 46 N. Main St. He said it would cost him about $1,000 to install cameras on the roof of his cafe. "As of now, I'm not doing any exterior improvements until this thing gets solved."
Kinnison said surveillance has been used to some success in downtown Sikeston, Mo.
Another suggestion was improved lighting. Charles Bertrand, owner of Spanish Street Mercantile at 26 N. Spanish St., said the 80 to 90 historical street lamps that line Spanish and several downtown streets are so dim it's difficult to spot vandals or feel safe.
Lighting, he said, "would be a big step forward. You take the habitat of the rat away, and you end up exposing them sometimes."
The lights were installed in the 1970s and funded by downtown merchants. Later, in 1984, a self-tax on the downtown district began which currently collects about $20,000 annually for infrastructure improvements.
Old Town Cape director Marla Mills said she has spoken with Cotner Electric Co. about brightening the lights and found out it would be "very expensive."
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