After 50 years, Cape's Town Plaza remains commercial hub

Friday, October 1, 2010
The Town Plaza Shopping Center is shown soon after it opened in August 1960 with prominent stores, including Kroger, W.T. Grant Co., Woolworth's and Gambles. William Street is below with Kingshighway at left and Independence Street at the top. (Southeast Missourian file)

The Woolworth's lunch counter, ice cream from Baskin Robbins, haircuts at Al's Barber Shop and back-to-school shopping at Sears are fond memories to those who grew up shopping at Cape Girardeau's Town Plaza.

Fifty years ago, the Town Plaza Shopping Center was a new and modern retail concept built at what was then the western edge of the city. Today, it remains a commercial hub for the city's midtown area.

Burton J. Gerhardt developed the area with the help of Sen. Al Spradling Jr., who recruited businesses to locate there. W.H. Bartles was also involved with the development.

"It was quite the deal of the day because we had never had a shopping center. Everything was downtown and there was nothing west of town at this point," said Spradling's son, Al Spradling III. He recalls attending the Town Plaza dedication ceremony in 1960 when he was 12.

Thousands packed into the Town Plaza for its dedication ceremony when Gov. James T. Blair Jr. performed a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The Missouri State Highway Patrol directed traffic as hundreds of cars came onto William Street from U.S. 61 and filled the 13-acre parking lot.

"This is a great example of free enterprise," Blair told the crowd that day.

Town Plaza's first merchants included Kroger, W.T. Grant, Rexall Drug and Woolworth's.

"I hate to say it, but this started the decline of downtown as a major shopping area," Spradling said. "People were looking for easier access and better parking. Everything changed after that."

Town Plaza's development was part of a national trend of post-World War II suburban sprawl due in part to the advancement of automobiles, said Dr. Steven Hoffman, coordinator of the historic preservation program at Southeast Missouri State University.

"Downtowns were not built for automobiles. These new shopping centers put the automobile first," Hoffman said. "There was really an idealistic vision to create a new town center that would fulfill the shopping needs of America's rising middle class. They appealed to the convenience of putting it all together in one place where you can go and drive in your car."

Several businesses started moving out of downtown and into Town Plaza, including Garber's Menswear, the only store that remains in the shopping center 50 years later.

Garber's moved from Good Hope Street to the new Town Plaza in the fall of 1960, said owner Rodney Bridges who with his wife, Dimple, purchased the store in 1972.

"It was a real leap of faith for him to move out there," Bridges said of the store's original owner, Charles Garber.

Sears came to Town Plaza in 1963, and Sen. Robert Kennedy visited during his campaign for the Democratic nomination for president. Kennedy's rally in April 1968, just 41 days before his assassination, attracted more than 5,000 people to Town Plaza.

Kerasotes Theatre was added to Town Plaza in 1973 and has remained the Town Plaza's west anchor, becoming an AMC Theatre earlier this year. Other well-known stores at Town Plaza in the 1970s included Sander's True Value Hardware, The Singer Sewing Machine Co., Scott's Shoes and Plaza Gifts and Office Supplies. An editorial in The Southeast Missourian in 1973 said the Town Plaza "sprang from a wasteland to become a vital center" with 77 stores in and around it at that time.

Town Plaza was purchased by Greater Missouri Builders in 1972 for a reported $2 million. The St. Louis company still owns it.

During the 1980s, the Town Plaza Merchants Association, later renamed the Cape West Merchants Association, sponsored sales promotions and community activities at the plaza ranging from frog jumping contests to concerts to even an arrival of Santa Claus by helicopter.

Flooding from Cape LaCroix Creek presented challenges in Town Plaza in the mid-1980s. Bridges remembers finding 26 inches of water inside Garber's during one of the worst floods.

"We lost $100,000 worth of merchandise right before Father's Day. It was very traumatic for all of us," he said.

The mix of tenants in Town Plaza has helped draw in customers over the years, Bridges said. "The businesses there have done a good job of keeping that a very viable place," said John Mehner, president and CEO of the Cape Girardeau Area Chamber of Commerce.

One of the more recent additions to Town Plaza is Buffalo Wild Wings, which opened in 2002. Owner Bill Zellmer said he chose Town Plaza because of its central location, the affordability of the building and its abundant parking. The restaurant was remodeled earlier this year.

Despite the recent downturn in the national economy, sales in Town Plaza have increased over the past few years, according to city tax records.

Sales totaled $11.5 million in 2006 and grew to $13 million in 2009, city records show.

In 2008, a community improvement taxing district was put in place as part of the deal to bring the National Asset Recovery Services Inc. development and 500 jobs into the old Sears building. The district placed an additional one-cent sales tax to be used for infrastructure improvements on the original Town Plaza structure and businesses near it.

"Being in business for 38 years, I've ridden out the peaks and valleys," said Bridges, who completed Garber's fourth interior renovation last year. "I know it's going to be good again, and I want to be ready when it picks up."

mmiller@semissourian.com

388-3646

Pertinent address:

2136 William St., Cape Girardeau, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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