Constructing the future of Cape's downtown

Friday, September 24, 2004

Over the 65-year history of Zickfield Jewelers in downtown Cape Girardeau, neighboring merchants have come and gone, and the business climate has improved and waned and cycled anew many times.

But owner Kent Zickfield has never seen anything like this.

"The recent wave of development is unparalleled in the history of downtown," said Zickfield, who is also a member of the board of directors for the Downtown Redevelopment Corp.

In the past year's time, several high-profile projects have put the spotlight on the downtown area: completion of the Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge, the grand reopening of the Marquette Tower, the progress of the floodwall mural project, the start of construction of the new federal courthouse on Frederick Street, and beginning construction on Southeast Missouri State University's River Campus in the spring.

These long-term and largely public-funded projects are only part of what is making Zickfield and his fellow downtown merchants excited. The primary cause for the widespread optimism in Cape Girardeau's historic district is the recent infusion of private money into downtown development.

"I've seen many downtown buildings renovated," Zickfield said. "But there hasn't been a new building go up downtown in my memory."

Thanks to those private investments, that's about to change.

Bridge to new era

When the new bridge opened in December 2003, it promised to create an influx of new motorists passing by downtown. The thought was that the increased traffic would trickle into the downtown area, creating more business. Combined with the buzz from the other major construction sites and renovations in the area, it was expected to create an economic renaissance in downtown Cape Girardeau. That revival was slow in coming.

During the months following the bridge's opening, the downtown actually took some steps backward. After the closing of Main Street's 86-year-old anchor Hecht's Store in October 2003, the downtown suffered the closings of Hale's Fine Jewelry and Woody's Greek House, which constituted over 75 years of downtown commerce. These came after a year that saw several businesses either close or relocate from downtown: The Wine Cellar (closed due to illness of owner), My Daddy's Cheesecake (moved to Route W), Grace Cafe (moved west to Broadway) and the Corner Cafe (closed after eight months).

Many of the downtown merchants who remained tried to stay upbeat, saying that business was picking up and arguing that the businesses left for other reasons than downtown location and economic climate. But Hale's manager Jenny Bell and My Daddy's Cheesecake owner Wes Kinsey were both on record saying they were concerned about the economic viability of the district.

But in the early part of 2004, things really started to happen downtown.

In February, Back Porch Antiques opened at 27 N. Main St. In April, Hempie's head shop moved into the old My Daddy's Cheesecake location at 111 Main, announcing that its former location around the corner at 110 Themis would eventually reopen as a skate shop. April also saw the reopening of the Bel Air Grill at 24 S. Spanish St., the opening of Ashley Bailey Custom Cabinets at 127 Main St. and Saffron restaurant owner Su Hill's announcement that she intends to renovate the old Keys Music building at 121 Broadway and convert it into a European-style pub and boutique hotel. In addition, Renaissance owner Sherry Yaeger and her husband, Mike, purchased the Hale's building at 137 N. Main St. and began expanding their home decor shop into those neighboring stores.

As positive as these developments were, they paled in comparison to what the summer held for downtown Cape Girardeau.

Summer spree

Summer 2004 saw a continuation in the downtown development trend, but many of these later developments were of loftier scope and price.

In June, the Cape Girardeau City Council unanimously approved plans for 16 luxury townhouses to be built at 210 N. Spanish St. The project -- dubbed Spanish Court -- is being developed by John and Jerianne Wyman and Jim and Michaele Riley and carries a price tag over $4 million.

Then on July 20, Cape Girardeau lawyer Mark Johnson completed a deal that gave him controlling interest of the parking lot north of Broadway between Main and Water streets. He hopes to turn the blighted 50,000 square feet of concrete into the site of his new law office -- a two-story, French quarter-style office building. He also foresees the potential for a coffee shop and retail stores on the south side of the lot.

"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."

Johnson said the inspiration for his vision was Jim Riley, who is also president of downtown's Red Letter Communications Inc. As Johnson finalized his deal to acquire the parking lot, Riley announced that he and two other partners are planning to develop the land north of Johnson's lot into Riverview Plaza, a blend of commercial office and retail space. Riley was excited about the impact these developments could have together.

"You're basically extending downtown by over a block," he said of the dual proposition.

All of this culminated in the recent announcement that the Wymans were near completing a deal in which they would purchase 32,000 square feet of vacant downtown store space that belongs to Marty and Tootie Hecht -- including the flagship building at 107 N. Main St. that once house the Hecht's store. Also in the deal are the buildings at 33, 35, 45 and 46 N. Main St. and the downtown Spanish Street parking lot behind Hecht's.

John Wyman said he and his wife are looking for a "mix of retail businesses" to occupy these storefronts.

A place to live

Beyond developing commercial and retail spaces, other ventures are making downtown a destination to live on a less costly scale than the Spanish Court townhouses.

Many downtown merchants have started renovating the upper levels of their buildings and leasing them out as loft apartments, said Steven Hoffman, president of the board of directors for the redevelopment group Old Town Cape. Right now, he said, more people are living downtown than at any time in the last 50 years.

"That's what we need," Hoffman said. "It gives us a 24-hour population downtown."

Barbara Travers, managing broker with Century 21 Key Realty, said she's definitely noticed an increased interest in the development of housing downtown.

Bruce Domazlicky, director of the Center for Economic and Business Research at Southeast Missouri State University, agrees that having people living downtown helps the district as a whole.

"In all businesses, traffic is important," Domazlicky said. "Having a population living downtown helps to boost that traffic."

Domazlicky added that people who live downtown will most likely shop and eat downtown because of the convenience, and they will patronize the district at night, going to restaurants when other businesses may be closed and not drawing in as many outside customers.

Nikki Stallion lives in a loft above a Main Street business. She said she not only is more apt to shop downtown because of the convenience but wants to spend her money in the area.

"When I moved here, it felt like there was a true community," Stallion said. "Rather than go to the mall and give your money to some big corporation, you want to give it to your neighbor."

Bill Dunn, sales manager of Rhea Optical and president of the Downtown Merchants Association -- which will soon merge with Old Town Cape -- shares Hoffman's enthusiasm about the downtown developments. But he, too, sees a larger benefit to all the goings on.

"The aesthetics of all this is going to be wonderful," Dunn said.

Included in this aesthetic facelift are the progress of the floodwall mural project and the city's coinciding plans to widen the sidewalk and create green space along Water Street.

A little luck to recovery

But even Mayor Jay Knudtson will admit that murals and a few renovated buildings alone do not make a downtown revival. He said none of this could have happened without a little luck in finding private investors who were willing to put their money into downtown Cape Girardeau.

However, Knudtson pointed out that it was the big public projects like the new bridge, the River Campus and the federal courthouse that provided the anchors for all that has happened.

"It takes public projects to give the private investors confidence to invest their money," Knudtson said.

Whatever the impetus was or is, Knudtson is excited about the momentum the downtown now carries after these last few months of progress.

"We all had aspirations and a vision to build up the downtown," Knudtson said. "But for the first time, I believe we have an opportunity to pull off a full revitalization of our downtown. Not a lot of communities can say that."

trehagen@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 137

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