Rolling on the River Campus

Wednesday, June 9, 2004

The grounds of the River Campus remain a quiet place today. There's little to announce their impending transformation except for a construction trailer parked in one corner of the property.

While construction contracts haven't been awarded, Southeast Missouri State University already has a contract with a construction management firm, BSI Inc. of St. Louis.

By August, area residents could see changes to the site on the Mississippi River in Cape Girardeau as work begins to turn the vacant former Catholic seminary into a new visual and performing arts school for Southeast at a cost expected to be over $36 million. University officials are not sure what the final price tag will be on a project that was conceived six years ago.

The art school classrooms and offices, which will be housed in the historic brick seminary building, could be in use by fall 2006. The new construction, including a performance hall, museum and Cape Girardeau welcome center, likely would be complete by January 2007, school officials said.

The city's Convention and Visitors Bureau would be housed in the welcome center through a lease arrangement.

Construction of an open-roof pavilion, a small parking lot off Aquamsi Street and a winding, 8-foot wide asphalt walking trail through the tree-filled east side of the River Campus should start in about two months. The trail would include several interpretive signs about the riverfront site.

The terrace project, costing more than $300,000 and funded largely with a federal grant, should be completed by year's end, said Al Stoverink, facilities management director at Southeast.

Brush and scrub trees that line the river bank will be removed to provide an uninterrupted view of the river, Stoverink said.

School officials intend to open the trail to the public even as other construction begins.

Construction work may begin in January with replacement of the roof on the historic, L-shaped brick seminary building and demolition of a gymnasium, swimming pool, restroom building, maintenance shed and tennis courts.

Stoverink said the university is preserving the 19th century seminary structure -- built in three phases from 1840 through 1871.

As part of the project, the university plans to add some new concrete foundations and walls inside the old brick building so it can better withstand a major earthquake.

The brick building where students once studied to be priests will be renovated to be faculty offices and classrooms for music, theater, art and dance.

A brick handball court built in the 1870s also will be preserved.

The old entry gate pillars have been taken down. They will be restored and put back in place on the entrance drive off Morgan Oak.

All of the remaining structures were built in the 1900s and will be torn down, Stoverink said.

The two crosses atop the old seminary building will remain because they are part of the original architecture, Stoverink said.

The gymnasium, built in the 1930s, stands where the main lobby of the new building will be constructed. The new structure will feature a 950-seat performance hall, a theater that can seat up to 204 people, a dance studio, a university museum and five art studio rooms on a lower level below the performance hall.

A state-affiliated welcome center is also planned as part of the structure. The center is expected to cost more than $1 million, most of it coming from federal dollars.

The new approximately 90,000-square-foot building will be located south and west of the existing seminary building. The sloping ground will allow the historic building to be visible even with the new construction, university officials said.

Combined with the historic structure, the River Campus buildings will cover about 141,000 square feet, school officials said.

Building of the newer River Campus structure and major renovations to the historic building could begin next March, he said.

The entire River Campus project is so enormous that it could involve as many as 20 to 30 different construction contracts, Stoverink said.

The new building will look modern.

"There is really not an attempt to do a fake old building," said Stanley Grand, director of the University Museum.

The basic design is complete, but Grand said the exterior finishes for the new building haven't been chosen. Grand, who is involved in the planning process, said the goal is for the new building exterior to complement the old brick building.

Litigation which held up the project ended six months ago. In December, the Cape Girardeau City Council and local businessman Jim Drury reached a settlement ending more than five years of lawsuits which had challenged the city's planned use of motel and restaurant tax dollars to help pay for the project.

State and local tax dollars and private donations are paying for the basic $36 million cost. Additional costs such as the walking trail and the welcome center are coming from grants.

"I really see the finish line is in sight," said Grand, who views the actual start of construction as an end in itself. "I know everybody else sees it as the starting line," he said.

mbliss@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 123

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