The state of 'Paradise City': Cape officials cite high, lows of 2007 in address

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Watch video of 2008 State of the City Address

Cape Girardeau Mayor Jay Knudtson, right, gave the state-of-the-city address to the Chamber of Commerce's First Friday Coffee attendees Friday, along with chamber president John Mehner at the Show Me Center. They took questions from the crowd and discussed topics ranging from roads to education. (Kit Doyle)

The only thing missing from Cape Girardeau's state-of-the-city report Friday were roses. Such flowers may have been appropriate, given the hidden thorns.

Mayor Jay Knudtson and Cape Girardeau Area Chamber of Commerce president John Mehner delivered an informal report at the chamber's monthly First Friday Coffee. They offered an informal summary, followed by a question-and-answer session. More than 200 members of the business community attended.

Mehner suggested Cape Girardeau could be described by lyrics of the Guns N' Roses song "Paradise City," "where the grass is green and the girls are pretty."

Praise for successes

They praised jobs created by the arrival of NARS at Town Plaza; the potential offered by East Main Street/LaSalle Avenue interchange on Interstate 55; improvements fueled by the DREAM Initiative; the opening of River Campus; a municipal exchange program with Paducah, Ky.; plans to renovate the floodwall; the city's first comprehensive plan in 20 years; and the apparent resolution of five long-ago murders.

Knudtson singled out the public safety tax approved by voters, saying it helped police assign an officer to unsolved cases, which in turn linked five murders to accused serial killer Timothy Krajcir.

"Being able to pull a guy off the street and put him on those cold cases, that's what quality of life means," he said.

"I do think it's paradise, too," Knudtson told the crowd. "But it ain't all rosy."

Mehner said early results of the chamber's recently completed survey show business owners are concerned about the economy, jobs, health-care costs, work-force development and the city's aging infrastructure.

The good news, he said, is "Cape is old enough to be redeveloped."

Mehner said support for the River Campus, which holds arts performances, is drawing more people downtown for meals and drinks.

Complete results of the chamber survey will be released later this month, he said.

Keen on growth

Knudtson said "the beautiful new interchange" paves the way for "unprecedented annexation."

City officials in Cape Girardeau and Jackson hope to see an influx of retail development around the interchange, though Knudtson said the goal is greater than a new commercial zone. The expansion should spur new housing developments, something he said the city needs, to balance city coffers "disproportionately financed by the sales tax."

But "we have to be consistent in our zoning," he said, adding that the new comprehensive plan, which calls for revamping zoning ordinances, will moderate growth.

The side benefit of the interchange, he said, are plans for new roads such as LaSalle Avenue and the Lewis and Clark Parkway. Knudtson said right-of-way negotiations with property owners should be completed soon.

Construction of the Lewis and Clark Parkway was "not something we were looking at 18 months ago," he said.

Also not on the city's radar two years ago: two commercial airline failures in less than a year.

Knudtson said the unexpected collapse of Big Sky Airlines after fewer than 30 days of service is not the fault of airport manager Bruce Loy, members of the city's airport advisory board, or MoDOT.

"As mayor, I take full responsibility," he said. "We are working with every resource to fix that issue."

Knudtson told the crowd the city does need commercial passenger air service, whether flights go to Cincinnati, St. Louis or another city.

Taxes

Knudtson extended his praise of public safety tax voters to those who approved funding for the library's extreme renovation. He endorsed the proposed half-cent retail sales tax for parks and storm-water improvements; three-quarters of the half-cent tax would expire in 10 years while the remainder would be permanent. Voters will decide the matter April 8. As the vote on the library tax demonstrated, Knudtson said, quality of life issues are important to residents.

Town Plaza improvement, he reminded those in the audience, "cost the city zero, based on the future sales tax."

"The NARS deal is an absolute home run. If I could do 10 of them, I'd do them," he said.

The shopping center is the city's first designated Community Improvement District, which allows for a 20-year, 1 percent tax to be added to Town Plaza's retail sales starting July 1. The money will fund $3.6 million in improvements to the center. Knudtson said those the plans are nudging nearby shops to pursue renovations as well.

Town Plaza tenant Emily Stapleton, owner of Contours Express, told the mayor she wants to see how the $3.6 million is being spent; he promised to make the list available.

Community development

Nancy Jernigan, executive director of the United Way of Southeast Missouri, asked how the city would aid Cape Girardeau's public school system. Knudtson and Mehner, who each have children enrolled in public school, said city and school officials communicate, but the two entities are separately governed.

Mehner said the private schools available make the community attractive to potential residents but ultimately hurt the public school system. He said the chamber has been working with real estate agents to reinforce public school benefits.

"We need a superintendent who spends at least two Christmases with us," Knudtson said.

When Jernigan pressed for answers on how the city could do more for children in low-income or single-parent families, Knudtson bristled. He said an infusion of $500 million wouldn't solve what is essentially a "people problem." He pointed out that few parents attend parent-teacher conferences.

"That's crap. That's the problem," he said. "Parents have got to get involved."

After the meeting, Jernigan said she wants to work with the city to convene community forums. Knudtson later said he had tried to do just that during his first term of office with disappointing results.

The mayor and city manager Doug Leslie later said such meetings could be held at city hall or the Osage Community Centre. Beyond that, Leslie said, the city has no "formal mechanism or accountability" for social service programs.

For Beckie Maintz, sales manager for Big River Telephone, a spirit of cooperation could also be developed between Cape Girardeau and Jackson.

As the First Friday Coffee ended, she wondered about development around the new I-55 interchange.

"I work in Cape, and I consider myself a resident of Jackson," said Maintz, who lives in Millersville. "I wonder if they are going to work together. It can only benefit us."

pmcnichol@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 127

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