EAST CAPE GIRARDEAU, Ill. -- When the Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge opened to traffic last December, the economic impact was felt almost immediately in East Cape Girardeau. Businesses in the Southern Illinois village saw a massive influx of new customers from the west bank of the Mississippi River.
Skeptics suspected that the initial increase may have been a short-term spike brought on by curious motorists trying out the new bridge, and they worried that it might taper off.
Now, almost seven months later, East Cape Girardeau business owners say the novelty of the bridge has started to diminish. However, they say the increase in business has not.
"I don't see any signs of it slowing down," said Margie Foster-Stout.
Foster-Stout has been running Margie's in East Cape Girardeau for the past 10 months. She said in the months after the bridge opened, her restaurant business more than tripled and she hasn't looked back since. For instance, on any given Sunday before the bridge opened, she'd serve at most 50 meals, breakfast and lunch. Two Sundays ago, Father's Day, her restaurant put out 75 plates at breakfast alone. By the time she closed at 2 p.m., she'd served around 275 meals.
Before she took ownership of the eatery, Foster-Stout worked there when it was called Witt's in the 1980s. What leads her to believe in the long-term benefits of the bridge is the fact that, in addition to the new faces she sees coming in, older customers that had stopped coming in years ago are coming back. She said they had stopped coming simply because they were afraid to cross the old and dilapidated Mississippi River bridge.
"Some people hated that old bridge," said Greg Martin of Karpet Korner. He said business at his store has increased by about 20 percent since the sturdier-looking replacement opened.
Martin said that because his parking lot is the first place Missouri drivers can turn around after crossing the new bridge, he immediately noticed new faces in his store.
But he added that his business is still rising, and he credits the upswing to the sightseers that just happened upon his lot to turn around.
"Some people didn't even know some of these businesses were here before," Martin said.
The rediscovery of East Cape Girardeau by Missouri motorists in the wake of the new bridge's construction led Dave Pearce to open a new business on the east side of the river. Pearce had been planning to open a motorcycle shop in the area for three years, but couldn't close on a Missouri location. Reluctant to build in Illinois -- where he already owned the Purple Crackle nightclub and lounge -- because of people's fear of the old bridge, the plan sat on the shelf.
But as the completion of the Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge neared, Pearce made the decision to go ahead and open TNT Choppers in East Cape Girardeau.
"I doubt if we'd have done it if it hadn't been for the new bridge," Pearce said.
The business at TNT Choppers has remained consistent since it opened, Pearce said, and the Purple Crackle has seen an increase in business of more than 30 percent since December.
Current business owners aren't the only ones sold on the benefits of the new bridge for East Cape Girardeau. Mayor Joe Aden said he's received an increase in interest from prospective occupants interested in the possibility of building or relocating on the east side of the river.
Aden said he now receives around four or five phone calls a month from people interested in available land and buildings for new businesses. Before the new bridge, he said, those calls were occasional at best.
Aden said he expects the current business boom to level off now that the novelty is beginning to thin. But he also doesn't see any reason for it to go down in the near future.
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