Setting the stage for selling downtown Cape

Friday, January 7, 2005

When the announcement was made last summer that then- executive director Catherine Dunlap would be leaving Old Town Cape, the redevelopment organization's leaders said they wanted to bring in a director who could recruit more businesses downtown. That person, 29-year-old Tim Arbeiter, has been on the job one month now and thinks the downtown area is an increasingly attractive location both to businesses looking to locate in Cape Girardeau and to existing businesses.

"I think we have some great things waiting there," he said.

Arbeiter said the major building blocks are already in place or taking shape: The Marquette Towers, the River Campus and the federal building. One part of his job is to be a resource when real estate agents come calling.

New computer software will allow the organization, housed at 111 Independence St., to catalog all of the buildings and property owners in the Old Town Cape district. The catalog will useful in marketing vacant buildings to potential businesses, Arbeiter said. The software should be installed soon, he said.

In his view, the area of Cape Girardeau between the River Campus and Independence Street is ripe for development, particularly for faculty and student housing.

"We may be seeing an arts-type community created in the Good Hope-Haarig District," he said.

The River Campus will determine much of what happens in that part of the district, he said.

"It will be interesting to see how the traffic patterns form. We've got to start planning now for what could change."

The proposed Spanish Court townhouse development on North Spanish Street will provide more high-end housing downtown, Arbeiter said, but he also hopes to help foster more mid-level housing development.

"One of the groups we are trying to attract is the professional, single individual," he said.

Some of the recruitment of businesses may be done through marketing, but most will occur on a one-to-one basis through building relationships all over town, Arbeiter said. "I'll also be approaching the larger developers and property owners and being a resource to them."

Part of his job, he says, is "being a cheerleader."

He is excited about the Cape Girardeau Convention and Visitors Bureau recommendations for spending $1 million in excess hotel and restaurant taxes primarily downtown on signage, a trolley and public restrooms.

Leaving SEMO

Arbeiter gave up a position as assistant director of operations of the University Center at Southeast Missouri State University to take the Old Town Cape job last month. Raised in Cape Girardeau, he was intrigued with Old Town's commitment to helping revitalize and develop a 130-block area of homes and businesses stretching from the Mississippi River to West End Boulevard and from North Street south to Shawnee Parkway.

"What a great way to make an impact on the community," he said. "There aren't a lot of jobs that can do that."

Part of his job, he said, is to encourage businesses to preserve the architecture of old storefronts. Old Town Cape makes available to merchants a booklet outlining design guidelines.

The organization depends largely on private funding and the efforts of volunteers. Arbeiter said another part of his job will be to help come up with new fund-raising activities.

He has spent much of his first month on the job meeting Old Town Cape merchants and visiting with city officials and civic leaders.

Dr. Steven Hoffman, associate professor of history at Southeast and president of the Old Town Cape board, said the board chose Arbeiter from a dozen applicants partly because of his communication skills.

"What we were really looking for, and Tim really excelled in it, was the ability to connect with people, to listen to what people were saying, and then to apply it to the problem or question at hand," Hoffman said.

Elected to the Cape Girardeau Board of Education in April, Arbeiter said his school board responsibilities haven't interfered with his new job. "It's my way of giving back to the community," he said.

Last year, Old Town Cape united with the Downtown Merchants Association. The association has become the retail merchants committee of Old Town Cape.Arbeiter said it's important for Old Town Cape merchants to speak with a single voice in pushing projects to the city council.

While the organization, founded in July 1999, isn't solely set up to serve the downtown area, Arbeiter said much of its current focus has been in that neighborhood.

The organization has lobbied for a number of major street improvements, including extension of Fountain Street as a new entrance to the downtown from the new bridge route, and changes to Water and Main streets.

Old Town Cape wants Fountain Street extended from Morgan Oak Street to William Street. But the organization, which is run by a board of directors, wants the two-block extension to be a decorative boulevard with brick-like pavers, old-fashioned-style lights and three roundabouts.

"We are really pushing for the most enhanced entrance to the city that we can get," said Hoffman. That would mean a project that could cost about $1.3 million, according to engineer estimates.

The city's planning and zoning commission has proposed that the city budget $300,000 toward the project. Coupled with a $500,000 grant the city has been awarded, there would be enough money to build a 40-foot-wide, concrete street.

But Hoffman and Arbeiter are optimistic that their organization can help secure state and federal grant money to build a decorative street that will resemble the brick-styled section of Fountain Street that borders the River Campus arts school site.

"There is no way that the citizens of Cape Girardeau should pay for that level of street out of their own pocket," Hoffman said.

Arbeiter said extension of Fountain Street will do more than provide another major entrance to Cape Girardeau's downtown. "That area is going to be primed and ready for development," he said.

Old Town Cape also wants Water Street turned into a one-way, southbound street with angled parking next to the floodwall mural. The improvements would include a wider sidewalk and interpretive signs explaining the historic scenes of Cape Girardeau depicted in the mural.

As part of street improvements, the organization wants the city to return Main Street to two-way traffic from Broadway to William Street. It currently is a one-way street for southbound traffic.

Hoffman said Old Town Cape has tried to keep downtown merchants informed of the street plans as well as seek their advice.

Some merchants aren't enthusiastic about the idea of making Main Street two ways. But Hoffman and Arbeiter said a two-way street would benefit the downtown shopping area.

"It slows traffic down," Hoffman said. "It makes it more pedestrian friendly. It is more conducive to visitors coming in and being comfortable, and staying and spending money."

mbliss@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 123

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