Cape mayor reflects on good, bad after year in office

Sunday, June 12, 2011
Mayor Harry Rediger speaks with city council member Loretta Schneider, right, during a city council study session Monday at Cape Girardeau City Hall. (Kristin Eberts)

Harry Rediger hadn't been in office a week when he was thrown for a loop normally reserved for a roller-coaster.

The news, which had the potential to change the city's economic landscape for generations, came as a huge surprise to a man who had really expected his new job to offer few surprises.

After all, when Rediger was elected by a landslide last April, Rediger felt well suited to serve as mayor. In addition to his decades of experience in retail management, the retired J.C. Penney manager served for 21 years on the city's second-most influential board, the city's Planning and Zoning Commission. He'd also worked on innumerable other local volunteer boards and committees for both the city and the county.

But how do you prepare for the potential of a $125 million economic development windfall, one of the largest investments in the city's history? Not to mention that, pass or fail, it would certainly define Rediger's first year in office and perhaps his public-service legacy.

"Quite an initiation," Rediger said, laughing. "It was by far the most important and time-consuming issue of the year. No question about it."

Mayor Harry Rediger, center, speaks during a City Council Study Session on Monday, June 6, 2011, at City Hall in Cape Girardeau. Seated to Regider's left is City Manager Scott Meyer and to his right is City Council member Loretta Schneider. (Kristin Eberts)

It may have been big, but the casino wasn't the only thing on Rediger's radar. It's been a busy year overall. From the push and pull of several ballot issues -- one that cleared the way for the casino, another snuffing out a smoke-free campaign -- to noise and party ordinances, Rediger's first year in office has been a memorable one.

If events do shape leaders, there are different opinions on just what sort of mayor Harry Rediger has become.

"It's a pretty small fraternity of us ex-mayors," said Jay Knudtson, who was mayor from 2002 to 2010. "Until you sit in that chair you don't know what it's like to make some of those tough calls. It's not always popular."

When Knudtson, who considers Rediger a close friend, was asked to judge Rediger's first-year performance, he offered a B-plus.

"There's always room for improvement," Knudtson said.

Knudtson has watched closely as Rediger and the rest of the city council has dealt with issues and he said he's agreed with much of what Rediger has done and how he's done it.

But Knudtson said there are obvious differences. By his own account, Knudtson was criticized at times for being heavy-handed and overly forceful. Rediger offers a contrast to that style, Knudtson said.

"Let's be clear: Our leadership styles are very different," Knudtson said. "Harry has assumed that role with his style. I think it's more of a soothing, diplomatic, all-inclusive style. It's served him well."

Kathy Swan was sworn in as a member of the city council at the same time as Rediger. That's given her ringside seats as Rediger became more comfortable in his role as the city's top elected official.

So far, she's been impressed. Her characterization of Rediger was similar to Knudtson's.

"Harry has a stable, even-keeled manner that almost has a calming effect on the city staff, the council and the citizens," Swan said.

But Rediger has not been above criticism and, during a lengthy interview with the Southeast Missourian, offered some of his own.

In December, city and economic development officials took some heat over a new business proposal called Watch Me Smile. When it was first announced, Rediger touted the project alongside company president Weaver Dickerson, Gov. Jay Nixon and Chamber of Commerce president John Mehner.

A short time later, the Missouri Department of Economic Development Commission withdrew its authorization of $2.05 million in state aid for the downtown dental and vision care cooperative after it was learned Dickerson was on probation for writing bad checks.

"That was not much fun to give that that much hype and have it blow up in a short period of time," Rediger said. "We probably -- from the chamber, Magnet, the city -- didn't do enough due diligence there."

City leaders, including Rediger, have also been under fire for what happened with aircraft manufacturer Commander Premier Aircraft Corp. The city sent a 30-day notice of eviction last month. Commander last made a lease payment in December 2007 and made only eight of its scheduled 39 payments. It didn't produce one plane.

Some in the community have said the city waited much too long before evicting Commander from the city-owned facility.

"As it turned out now, that's probably right," Rediger said.

But Rediger said that all along, Commander offered the best option of a company being able to make good economic use of the hangar at the Cape Girardeau Regional Airport. Canadian businessman Ronald Strauss had promised for months that he was close to putting together a deal to buy the company and turn it into a profitable endeavor. He also vowed to make all the back payments.

"It was our best option at the time," Rediger said. "If times were good and had another manufacturer on the line, it would have been easy to say 'put up or shut up,' but we didn't."

While Rediger admits to making mistakes, he is now trying to look forward.

He's excited that the new budget has a 2 percent increase for city workers. He sees room for improvement for the city -- he'd like to entice a big-box sporting goods store to come here. He knows it's time to do something with the empty Plaza Galleria building. He has other ideas.

Rediger said making tough decisions is part of the job of being mayor. The criticism doesn't bother him as long as he believes what he's doing is right.

"I'm used to it," he said. "It doesn't bother me. I've been getting it all my life, being in retail."

smoyers@semissourian.com

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Pertinent address:

401 Independence, Cape Girardeau, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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