Scenic route's dead end

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Five years ago, some civic leaders in Stoddard, Scott and Dunklin counties considered the idea of applying for national scenic byway status along Crowley's Ridge from the Arkansas border all the way to Commerce, Mo. The idea was to improve safety on Highway 25 and other roads included in the byway and stimulate the local economy of the communities with tourism dollars.

Southeast Missouri State University latched on to the proposal and helped supporters obtain state grants to study the issue. An anonymous donor even contributed $10,000 to the university toward the effort.

The Stars and Stripes Museum in Bloomfield, Mo., supported the byway. The Dexter Board of Aldermen endorsed it. The Cape Girardeau Regional Commerce and Growth Association got on board.

Dr. Mike Yuan, former faculty member in the health and leisure department at Southeast Missouri State University, predicted that the proposed 50-mile byway would have an economic impact on the area of $36,000 a mile. Federal funding and a designation as a national scenic byway promised to bring in even more dollars in federal transportation money. Yuan said that a national byway designation would create 364 jobs in the area that would in turn stimulate the economy even more.

But five years later, the only signs indicating a state scenic byway are in Dunklin County. Outside of Dunklin County, the new businesses that have settled along the proposed byway on Highway 25 did so without any benefit of state or federal dollars generated by the designation.

The scenic byway program exists at the state and federal levels. The byway approved in Dunklin County is part of the state system, which comes first; federal designation is granted later. A 212-mile Crowley's Ridge Parkway, a national scenic byway, is near the state byway and can be linked.

Scott County was initially interested, those involved said, but didn't pursue the byway project because of all the opposition that came from Stoddard County.

"It died a natural death," said Gary Capps, who at that time was the scenic byway coordinator for the regional project and now works for the Scott County Industrial Development Authority as an economic development coordinator.

"It became a political controversy," he said.

Distrust of government

Southeast history professor Dr. Frank Nickell, who is involved in the National Scenic Byway Program in his capacity as chairman of the Missouri Parkway Commission, said what happened in Stoddard County comes from a distrust of federal government and fear of its intervention in people's lives. Some people, he said, are also not interested in having tourists coming through their hometowns, even though tourists spend money. Not everyone, he said, receives the benefit of those tourist dollars.

The conservative-leaning Farm Bureau and local farmers had concerns about losing their property rights alongside the byway. The groups expressed fears that state or federal agencies would dictate how their property should look. The billboard industry lobbied hard against it, Nickell said; in a scenic byway, no new billboards can be erected. Landowners who enjoy the rent from a billboard were not eager to lose that income.

Capps said that local people indicated a distrust in each other, saying that "in five or 10 years things would be fine, but then people would get greedy."

The pressure against the proposal became too great, and supporters of the project in Stoddard County found themselves outvoted.

Scott County dropped the idea because Stoddard County did, said Carolyn Pendergrass of Scott City, who was involved with the project. There didn't seem to be enough support, and Stoddard County forces were putting pressure on Scott County officials. Some people resented and were suspicious of the university's involvement, she said.

"It became nasty," Pendergrass said. "It's pretty much a lost cause as far as Scott County is concerned. It was a very sad thing. People had the idea that the federal government was going to come in and tell them everything they had to do, which was not the case at all. I think they were misinformed. Every time I drive through Dunklin County I think this is what we could have in Scott County. We just lost out on an opportunity."

Dunklin's progress

In Dunklin County, supporters went ahead and connected to efforts going on in Arkansas. The area along Highway 25 at Crowley's Ridge in between Malden and the state line was designated a scenic byway in 2000, said Charles Isbell, chairman of the byway corporation and Dunklin County clerk. The original effort turned out to be political, he said, but politics can change. It's possible that someday Stoddard and Scott counties might revisit the issue with a different outcome.

"As politicians change in our various counties, it could have a big effect on it," Isbell said. "We have elections every year."

Isbell said since the county's byway designation is only 2 years old, it's too early to see any economic impact, nor have any chambers of commerce noticed any growth as a result. But Isbell believes it was a smart move to go for the byway designation.

"Tourism is one of the easiest ways to create jobs in any part of the country," Isbell said.

Nickell and Capps say they believe the other counties will eventually come around, but the conditions have to be right. It won't happen soon, Capps predicted.

"The same people are still here," he said. "The outcome would be the same."

"I don't think there's any question it will be revisited," Nickell said. "It will have to be at some point in the future because the opportunities are so great."

335-6611, extension 160

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