Retail projects for I-55 on hold

Saturday, October 20, 2007

A soft national retail market and the unproven "greenness" of the new Interstate 55 interchange in Cape Girardeau County means any major commercial development is on hold, according to the chief representative for developer THF Realty of St. Louis.

The announcement came in an e-mail sent to Wayne Smith, executive director of the Southeast Missouri University Foundation, by Alan Bornstein, a lawyer for THF who is guiding the company's work to plan development on the foundation's 400-acre farm at the interchange.

Smith distributed the e-mail to area political leaders and media. Smith, who is also Southeast Missouri State University's vice president for university advancement, did not return calls Friday seeking comment on the e-mail.

"Our decision to delay the project was difficult but necessary," Bornstein wrote to Smith. "From the beginning of this project more than a year ago we stated that a retail development required a multiple large format tenant commitment to the site. We concluded that although we had an interest in the site that it was premature to ask for firm commitments for a 2010 opening."

THF was chosen to plan the development in 2006 after the foundation reviewed proposals from several developers. THF Realty has close ties to Wal-Mart through chairman Stan Kroenke of Columbia, Mo., who is married to the daughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton.

The interchange, under construction at a cost of $8.5 million, will be finished late this year or early in 2008, Missouri Department of Transportation officials said earlier this week. The foundation's property, operated as a research farm by Southeast Missouri State University, lies adjacent to the interchange on the east side and to the south of East Main Street in Jackson on the west side of I-55.

The foundation property on the east side of I-55 will be split by the proposed LaSalle Avenue, to be constructed by Cape Girardeau within 18 months after the city completes property acquisition for the right of way to build the road to Route W.

Along with the retail center development north of LaSalle Avenue, plans call for a research and development complex to the south and housing on the property on the west side of the highway in Jackson.

There is no contract between the foundation and THF. Smith said earlier this week that the relationship is based on "an informal good old country handshake."

The e-mail, Bornstein wrote to Smith, was an attempt to quiet rumors about the company's plans. He wrote that he is traveling and could not respond to everyone seeking comment on the project. Bornstein has not returned messages left by the Southeast Missourian.

"Although I cannot provide an exact time when we will restart the project I am hopeful that we can move forward within the next year with the intention of an opening in 2011," Bornstein wrote. "Of course any decision to accept the delay is totally within the discretion of the university.

"Nevertheless, if the University elects they can proceed with the housing component and research park without jeopardizing our retail plan," he wrote.

During an August meeting with area business, university and political leaders, Bornstein reportedly laid out THF's requirements for public support of the retail complex. According to several sources, he asked for $85 million to $100 million in tax financing over several years to support the project.

In the e-mail, Bornstein made no promises. "We believe the delay enhances the probability of ultimately completing a development. Only time will tell."

The demands for tax assistance will make it hard to support THF's ultimate plan unless it is "new and different," Cape Girardeau Mayor Jay Knudtson said Friday. "My enthusiasm to get behind a lucrative incentive plan to duplicate retail outlets that already exist is limited," he said.

THF's close relationship with Wal-Mart helped the company land the project, Knudtson noted. But a new Wal-Mart would shift customers from existing stores.

Whether a grand plan is implemented or whether development proceeds slowly, the area will be a winner, Knudtson said. "Cape Girardeau is going to be just fine whether this builds out today or this builds out 10 years from now," he said. "This is not an opportunity to save Cape Girardeau."

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