When Dale Nitzschke, then-Southeast Missouri State University president, announced in 1998 plans to turn the St. Vincent's Seminary property into a school for the visual and performing arts, he predicted that what we now call the River Campus would have a remarkable impact on the south side of the city as well as expanding the university's facilities and programs.
This fall, the Earl and Margie Holland School of Visual and Performing Arts is scheduled to open in facilities that combine the main historic seminary building with sweeping, modern structures that house performance halls, classrooms and the university museum -- all with commanding views of the Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge across the Mississippi River.
And there are signs that Nitzschke's vision of new life for the south side is already taking form. New businesses have opened, existing housing is being rehabilitated and public-works projects are being completed -- all giving new life to an area of Cape Girardeau that was, until a few years ago, rapidly falling into decay.
The impetus of the River Campus has been spurred by two other major projects: the Emerson bridge and its grand new entrance to the city, and the nearby Rush Hudson Limbaugh U.S. Courthouse, which has added drama to the skyline and is scheduled to open soon.
Among the pioneers who saw good prospects in the area around the River Campus were the owners of the Rose Bed Inn, a bed-and-breakfast and dining venue that has restored several old homes to picture-perfect elegance. Others, like redeveloper Jason Coalter, whose efforts to bring that part of Cape Girardeau back to life were chronicled in last Monday's Southeast Missourian, and Jack Rickard, who has revived some of the city's architectural gems, are improving the odds that downtown Cape Girardeau and the south side have a bright future.
In the intervening years since the River Campus was first announced, the city has built a street of paving stones that is destined to be extended well into the downtown area. A river overlook that memorializes the narrow, old bridge that served the city for 75 years has been completed. A park area between the River Campus and the river with a walking trail and a record-setting beech tree has been turned into a peaceful oasis.
And all around that part of town you can see other projects that might have been left untended or delayed, had it not been for the River Campus and its nearby companion projects.
In addition to its impact on the community, the River Campus, which current president Ken Dobbins kept alive through difficult times, also is boosting the arts programs at the university, which is experiencing an overall boom in freshman enrollment and a sizable uptick in arts students.
With a full season of arts events scheduled for the first year of the River Campus' operation, Cape Girardeau's downtown and south side will be glowing.