Hopkins: Cape needs growth to remain vital

Thursday, January 21, 2010
Matt Hopkins places a campaign sign in a yard with his children, Melissa and Justin. Hopkins is running for mayor of Cape Girardeau. (Fred Lynch)

Editor's note: This is the third of three stories about Cape Girardeau mayoral candidates.

Matt Hopkins has watched Cape Girardeau grow.

The 46-year-old former councilman and candidate for mayor remembers when William Street ended at Kingshighway. He remembers cattle grazing on the land where West Park Mall stands today.

And despite all that growth, Cape Girardeau retains charms that recall small-town life.

"I like to call Cape Girardeau a large Mayberry," Hopkins said. "While we are not that small town, the quality of life here is great."

Hopkins is a native, raised on Bloomfield Road. He represented Ward 5 on the Cape Girardeau City Council from 2000 to 2008 and is one of three candidates in the Feb. 2 primary. An account representative for Technology and Networking/ASC, Hopkins faces retired businessman Harry Rediger and real estate investor Walter White. The top two vote-getters will face off in the April 6 election.

The winner will replace Mayor Jay Knudtson, who is being forced out by term limits.

All the growth and change Hopkins has witnessed has made the city a regional hub for jobs and shopping. The city needs to continue that growth to remain vital, he said.

"When a community quits changing and growing, it goes into retirement mode," Hopkins said.

Cape Girardeau uses city tax money, in cooperation with Jackson and Cape Girardeau County, to support Cape Girardeau Area Magnet, the economic development agency that looks for new prospective employers.

Absent passage of Right to Work legislation, Hopkins said Cape Girardeau is unlikely to land a big industrial plant. But the city's attributes -- a dedicated work force, a central U.S. location and good transportation by river, road, rail and air -- do make it attractive for smaller and medium-sized companies looking for a new location, he said.

One of the biggest new employers to the region, NARS, arrived in 2006, and now employs about 500 people. At that time, Hopkins said, some criticized NARS for low pay. It started employees at about $8.50 an hour.

All job growth is good for the city, Hopkins said. "We don't want to be job snobs. We want to welcome anyone who wants to place their businesses here."

Economic development should strike a balance between attracting new businesses and supporting the prosperity of those already here, he said.

"We need all the national franchise stores and restaurants," he said. "But it is important to have local, small businesses, and I will continue to foster that."

And Hopkins isn't convinced that the only place for a new business is inside the city limits. As the city grows, the regional economy will improve and that will, in turn, benefit Cape Girardeau, he said. "We can't think of Cape Girardeau as an island."

During his two terms on the city council, Cape Girardeau added major new retailing businesses along Siemers Drive and committed itself to building LaSalle Avenue and the new Interstate 55 interchange north of Center Junction.

The city wasn't going to build LaSalle Avenue or participate in the new interchange until Hopkins said he saw a potential for the city's growth to the north to be blocked. Jackson was already committed to the interchange and, through four-party negotiations that also included the county and Southeast Missouri State University, a deal was struck. Cape Girardeau extended its boundary through annexation and decided to build LaSalle, securing that area as part of the city.

"I led the charge for us to get involved," Hopkins said.

The annexations along I-55 to reach the new interchange have been supplemented in recent months as Dutch Meyr, who owns property on both sides of LaSalle Avenue, has agreed to have his property annexed. For almost 40 years, Cape Girardeau has pursued a policy of only annexing property with the consent of the landowners.

Hopkins said he sees no need to change that policy but added that the city could do a better job of selling the idea of expanding its borders to the property owners along city limits. For example, he said, the owner of a property worth $400,000 would pay only $50 more in taxes after annexation. That's a small price to pay for the added police and fire protection alone, he said.

The city has two directions for growth, to the north and along and south of Route K, Hopkins said. "We have to always keep our options open."

Hopkins also takes credit for pushing to have more regular budget updates for the council instead of waiting each year until a new budget was being proposed by the city manager. That has helped the city remain financially sound, he said, crediting finance director John Richbourg with making the information available and easy to understand.

Over the coming four years, implementing the DREAM Initiative plan for downtown and deciding how to deal with the city's aging sewer plant will be major issues for the city. A big part of the DREAM Initiative will be Broadway revitalization. The city, by including reconstruction of sidewalks and repaving Broadway in the next Transportation Trust Fund road plan, will spark that resurgence, he said.

That will spark other investment, he said. And by working through the Cape Girardeau Area Chamber of Commerce and Old Town Cape, the city should communicate with property owners to discuss what could be done.

The city can help the property owners access money needed to improve their properties, he said. Decisions about whether a building should be renovated or torn down should be made based on the historic value of properties and other factors on a case-by-case basis, he said.

The city's sewage treatment plant is going to need major upgrades or replacement in coming years as stricter water pollution standards are put in place for the Mississippi River. The city is studying the issue, but a solution is likely to be directed by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and the federal Environmental Protection Agency, Hopkins said.

"Ultimately, if it is an upgrade or replacement, we are going to have to make the case to voters," he said.

It all adds up to a desire to keep Cape Girardeau growing, a place that both provides opportunity and a good life, Hopkins said.

"I chose to stay here because I love Cape Girardeau," he said. "I hope my children choose to stay and are able to enjoy what I enjoyed and enjoy now."

rkeller@semissourian.com

388-3642

Pertinent addresses:

Cape Girardeau, MO

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