Cape downtown parking lot bought for development

Sunday, August 15, 2004

By Tony Rehagen

Special to Business Today

Mark Johnson is no real estate developer. He just wanted a piece of the action.

Now the local lawyer has acquired a piece of downtown Cape Girardeau, a blighted multilevel parking lot that he hopes can be a key player in the rapid revitalization of the area.

"There's a lot of activity downtown with the Marquette, the new bridge and the River Campus," Johnson said. "I just wanted to be a part of it."

On July 20, Johnson completed a yearlong quest that sent him all over the country to buy a controlling interest of the lot north of Broadway between Main and Water streets from stockholders of Downtown Parking Inc. He now owns the dilapidated vacant license bureau building, the remnant floor tiles of a Sinclair gas station and more than 50,000 square feet of crumbling concrete, littered with garbage and overgrowth. But from this vacant lot, Johnson said he has a wide open view of the river and the future.

Johnson said that although there are no formal plans, he envisions watching the Mississippi from the balcony of his new law office -- a two-story, French quarter-style office building standing on the plot of land where the gas station once stood. He also sees the potential for a coffee shop where the old license bureau building now sags and retail stores on the south side of the lot that faces Broadway and a busy downtown that extends about a block and a half northward on Main and Water streets.

But for now, these are little more than visions in Johnson's mind's eye. His actual eyes see the immediate need to clean up the area, tear down the old license bureau and study the possibilities.

Opened in 1961

The parking lot itself was the result of a group of downtown visionaries.

Formed in 1960, Downtown Parking Inc. was a group of downtown merchants who saw the need for off-street parking for a bustling business district. The corporation almost immediately purchased five tracts of land on the northwest corner of Broadway and Main, tore down the buildings and paved the area. The corporation later decided to include a service station and a public lounge on the premises. The entire complex opened in fall of 1961.

In the decades since, the Sinclair station has closed, been razed and had its underground tanks removed. Years of neglect have left the span of concrete in ruins. Johnson plans to finish scrapping the original plans of Downtown Parking Inc. and start anew.

New neighbor

Johnson is not alone in his vision. He said his inspiration for this project was his new neighbor to the north, Jim Riley.

Riley is president of Red Letter Communications Inc. and owner of the property bordering Johnson's to the north, which includes land formerly occupied by Kidd Oil Co. He and his wife, Michaele, are currently working with John and Jerry Wyman to develop the $4 million Spanish Court development at 210 N. Spanish St., just west of Johnson's property.

At some point, Riley and his partners, Frank Kinder and lawyer Gerry Jones, expect to develop his northern Main Street property into commercial office and retail space called Riverview Plaza. It was Riley's talk about these plans that got Johnson excited about the location's potential.

"You're basically extending downtown by over a block," Riley said of the combination of the two proposed developments.

Both Riley and Johnson admit that these plans are little more than musings at this point. Many issues are left to be sorted out, including how the development will coincide with the city's proposed improvements to Water Street. But for now, both would-be Main Street developers are excited about the location's potential.

"It doesn't hurt to dream," Riley said.

Tony Rehagen is business editor at the Southeast Missourian.

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