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Marquee man: Esquire Theater developer has plans for more Broadway buildings

Thursday, December 29, 2011

John Buckner, owner of the newly formed Broadway Esquire Entertainment Group, stands along Broadway in Cape Girardeau on Wednesday morning. Buckner bought the Esquire Theater and hopes to buy three more buildings on Broadway, one of which will be a 24-hour diner.
(Laura Simon) [Order this photo]
John Buckner made a splash in October with his announcement that he was undertaking a $2.7 million project to rehabilitate the Esquire Theater into an independent film house.

Now, the Cape Girardeau art dealer and developer has his eye on at least three other Broadway buildings, including plans to turn one into an upscale diner that will be open around the clock.

"I noticed on a recent Sunday afternoon that Broadway had no people on it," said Buckner, 42. "There was nothing going on down here. So I began to think, 'How can I keep people downtown?'"

His idea? Do the same thing with other buildings that he is doing with the 67-year-old Esquire: buy them and transform them into something that will capture the imaginations -- and business -- of the public.

Buckner has a building in mind on the same block as the Esquire and is in negotiations with its owner to buy it, but he's not ready to go public with specifics about which building it is. Buckner hopes a deal will be finalized in February.

The inside of the Esquire Theater in Cape Girardeau sits empty Dec. 9. Renovations of the theater on Broadway are underway.
(Laura Simon) [Order this photo]
But he already imagines a 1950s-themed diner there with a menu that includes health-conscious pasta, gluten-free salads, gourmet soups and burgers. He intends for the kitchen to be in sight of the patrons.

For the other buildings that he'd like to buy through his company, Broadway Esquire Entertainment Group, he has a laundry list of ideas: yoga studio, art supply store and a dance studio. He also envisions what he describes as a "corks and canvas" business, a place where people can paint and drink wine.

"We need to start taking steps up on Broadway," Buckner said. "There are so many options that we're missing out on. We need something kind of trendy."

A building that isn't included in his plans, at least not yet, is the old Broadway Theater, which sits across the street from the Esquire. Buckner was considering it until this week, he said.

Architects and other city and economic development officials toured the Broadway Theater on Tuesday, and Buckner came away from the meeting wondering what he would do with it.

His ideas had been a place for concerts, similar to The Pageant in St. Louis, or perhaps a bowling alley, he said. But the size of the building -- not long enough or wide enough in spots -- made that impractical, he said. If he put in a live theater, it would compete with the River Campus, something he does not want to do.

"It is a gorgeous building, it is beautiful," Buckner said. "And I want to make sure it would benefit Cape. I'd still like to do something with it someday, I really would. But I cannot commit to buying it at this time."

Area economic development officials who have worked with Buckner in his quest to get the Esquire Theater plan going say he is passionate about Cape Girardeau and serves as a model for other building owners or would-be investors.

Buckner is excited about being here and loves the community, said Tim Arbeiter, the Cape Girardeau Area Chamber of Commerce's vice president of community development.

"He's a I'm-going-to-get-it-done kind of guy," Arbeiter said. "He has a true passion for art and what he does. He wanted to make a splash and do something on a big scale. He wanted to do something the community doesn't currently have. He wanted to fill a niche."

Old Town Cape executive director Marla Mills put the bug in Buckner's ear about the Esquire when he approached her with his idea of an independent film theater.

"I thought he and the Esquire would be a great match," Mills said. "John has been exposed to a lot of different communities and different projects in ways to express art in a community. He's the real deal, and he has huge energy. We're very fortunate that he's chosen to land here in Cape."

Buckner is a native of Farmington, Mo., but he had been away for 25 years working in a varied list of fields. At 24, he took a job working for the Federal Reserve Bank in Nashville, Tenn.

Always an art fan, he frequented a frame shop to get his rock 'n' roll memorabilia custom framed. He became interested in it and six months later, he quit his job at the bank and took a job at the shop for a pay cut -- $6.25 an hour.

"With me, crazy things happen all the time," Buckner said.

It wasn't long until he bought the shop. He became acquainted with local artists who came in to have their work framed. The artists then asked if they could hang their work in his shop. He agreed.

Then he began selling the artists' work. After "breaking out," he moved to Los Angeles, where he was an art dealer for 15 years.

Six years ago, he moved to New Orleans, where he would meet the renowned metal sculptor Dr. Arthur Silverman.

But then he decided to move to Cape Girardeau recently to be near his family, who live in Sedgewickville, Mo. He also is director of sales at Eustis Studios.

Now, he's started his company made up of himself and several "silent partner" investors that he declines to name. The money for the Esquire project is all cash, and the company isn't taking out any loans. None of the company's other investors are from the Cape Girardeau area.

In fact, he even recently reversed course and decided not to use tax credits for the Esquire construction, which he says will speed up the process by four to six months. His target date of opening the Esquire 55 years to the day it first opened is much more realistic now, he said -- Jan. 21, 2013.

He wants to keep the historic integrity of the building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but he wants to be able to do what he wants. The restrictions of the credits, for example, might have made his plans for the Starstruck Lounge more difficult, or his idea for a private box for himself.

"I just wanted to move forward with making the theater the way I want to do it," Buckner said.

Meanwhile, work is continuing on the Esquire. Twenty-seven truckloads of debris that cluttered the building -- 20 feet high in some places -- have been hauled away, leaving the interior basically empty except for what remains of the marquee, Buckner said.

"It was like 'Hoarders' gone wild," he said.

The architect is expected after the first of the year to take measurements, Buckner said. Plans should be ready within four to six months, he said, before construction can start.



Pertinent address:

824 Broadway, Cape Girardeau, MO

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I'd love to see an Art-House theater, upscale diner and other interesting entertainment and retail options in downtown Cape, but I seriously fear that we don't have nearly enough of the sort of "corks and canvas" crowd locally to support them.

The fact that all their investors are from out of town seems a little curious too. Wonder if our local investors see the warning signs in targeting a rather limited demographic segment locally. It seems like most upscale business quickly fail here, and those survive do so by adjusting their focus a little more downmarket and mainstream.

-- Posted by Nil on Thu, Dec 29, 2011, at 2:08 AM

I'd love to see something like the Magnolia Cafe on Congress in Austin. Heck, i'd even take Katz's.

-- Posted by Iceburg on Thu, Dec 29, 2011, at 2:49 AM

Why do they keep calling John Buckner local. He doesn't live in the area. He lives in New Orleans, Louisiana. He spends like 2 days a month here.

-- Posted by jl20intheknow on Thu, Dec 29, 2011, at 4:02 AM

He is doing what I wish for years to have had the money to do or someone else with a vision to do and that is make the downtown what it should be. All these great buildings are there and Broadway was nothing but a decent store here and there but more like a shanty town. For awhile we had the great restaurant at the Marquette and the N'Orleans was still open. Overnight it seems they closed and remain closed. While they were open, the area was busy. I hope Broadway becomes like the Delmar Loop in St. Louis. When we are there we are always thinking Cape could be like this. I hope others with a vision see the potential there as well. It would be great to have more to offer in the biggest city between St. Louis and Memphis.

-- Posted by That's a Fact! on Thu, Dec 29, 2011, at 6:36 AM

Yes you are really in the know. the negative always comes out in cape.

-- Posted by ssinteriors on Thu, Dec 29, 2011, at 6:39 AM

Belive me, Mr. Buckner--if you opened up a facility for live entertainment you would NOT be competing with the River Campus. It is nearly impossible to get acts booked there because the halls are not available for booking during the fall and spring semesters, lest they interfere with student needs. The River Campus halls sit empty much of the year, just to avoid potential conflict, rather than inconvenience the administration by having them actually manage the events around the academic schedule. We truly need another performing arts venue to bring smaller touring acts to Cape Girardeau in the jazz, folk, bluegrass and even rock genres.

-- Posted by grasp_of_the_obvious on Thu, Dec 29, 2011, at 9:04 AM

I too question whether an upscale restaurant serving health food will draw significant clientele (especially at 3am), but thank God for people like Buckner. Revitalization of Cape's downtown area is vital to maintaining the city's character, and it is that character which draws people and new businesses to the city. Good luck, Mr. Buckner!

-- Posted by Mark Rutledge on Thu, Dec 29, 2011, at 9:12 AM

I don't know if Buckner looked at the old Broadway Theater before buying the Esquire, but it's in remarkable shape inside.


It would be great if the old movie district of Cape could be recreated.

As far as the comment about him not being local, I'd rather see someone innovative come to town a few days a month than have some naysayer live here year-round.

(Spoken as a carpetbagger who makes it to town a couple of times a year.)

-- Posted by ksteinhoff on Thu, Dec 29, 2011, at 9:46 AM

I'm sure this will be deleted in about 10 minutes... but oh well. As much as I wish every single thing stated above would happen for Cape Girardeau, I'm going to go ahead and say fat chance. I find it hilarious how enamored everyone is with John Buckner when they've never met him...and yes, I have...although he probably wouldn't remember it. Also, to the Missourian...I'm planning on buying the entire downtown section of Spanish street and turning it into a eco friendly youth hostel and vegetable garden. Would you like to do a story on me? Slow news day?

-- Posted by semissouriann on Thu, Dec 29, 2011, at 10:33 AM

Wow! Jealous much? I think Mr. Buckner has every intention to do everything he can for Downtown Cape. Whether or not he found you memorable is of no consequence to me! I am very excited about the prospect of new life in downtown, and if YOU actually do anything with Spanish street I will be happy for you too. Why so much negativity? I hope you are given more respect when your time comes.

-- Posted by Yhate on Thu, Dec 29, 2011, at 1:45 PM

I'm not jealous in the least, and I sincerely hope everything stated above happens. I'll just be shocked if anything comes to fruition when everything is said and done. It's not so much an issue of whether he found me memorable so much as he more than likely isn't capable of remembering. I just find it hilarious how the Missourian does a story over something that isn't even in the works. I would use the example of counting chickens before they hatch, but this article is like counting eggs before a chicken has been purchased. Simply put, as soon as the Esquire or anything else is finished and its doors are open, I will gladly say I was wrong, but until then I have my right to skepticism.

-- Posted by semissouriann on Thu, Dec 29, 2011, at 2:06 PM

Personally I think it is unrealistic to expect a venue such as a Delmar loop that exists in St. Louis. I just don't see it happening with the demographics in this town. Given the lack of high paying professional jobs, I'm not sure an upscale restaurant will last either. Lastly, the wise old adage comes to mind: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. I would be very cautious with expectations.

-- Posted by Beaker on Fri, Dec 30, 2011, at 3:02 AM

"i live downtown. i am very excited about all i have read and heard concerning this area. a 24 hour a day cafe! great! re-opening of a great ole theather! cool! i like movies and i like to eat. and i have heard plenty of very positive talk lately from others in our area. lets make it happen and lets support it..."

-- Posted by tennisnut on Fri, Dec 30, 2011, at 9:48 AM

Lack of high paying professional jobs? I guess the hospitals don't have any highly paid doc's nor does SEMO pay their professsors decent wages. Let's not forget all the other independent business owners, dentists, architechts, engineers, orthodontists, upper level management of Drury/ATT/PnG/Breyers, etc.

-- Posted by Tax__Payer on Sat, Dec 31, 2011, at 10:18 PM

I, for one, am absolutely thrilled to hear about John Buckner's plans for the Esquire Theater and the surrounding area. I graduated from Southeast in the 1990s, and while I no longer live in Cape Girardeau, some of my fondest memories are tied to the university and the community.

I've always dreamed about buying buildings along Broadway and turning into the interesting and grand thoroughfare that it could and should be, but unfortunately the amount of money I've made has limited me to daydreaming about it and nothing more. So it's great to see someone like John Buckner recognize downtown's potential and invest in it.

The Delmar Loop comparison may seem far-fetched to some, but not to me. In the 1970s, when the area was destitute and written off by most, Joe Edwards invested in Blueberry Hill and the Tivoli theater. The former became a destination in its own right, and the latter became the leading art film cinema in Greater St. Louis. Over time they became anchors for one of the most vibrant neighborhoods in the metropolitan area. But it took patience, a vision, and investment in an area and a time when plenty of naysayers thought Joe Edwards wouldn't succeed.

That to me sums up the #1 thing that's held Cape Girardeau back for decades: It seems like too many people have a can't do attitude. Fortunately there are plenty of others that see the city's potential. The Southeast campus has been growing and transforming into an even stronger asset for the community, and the River Campus has added vibrancy to the community through the preservation and re-use of St. Vincent's Seminary. The Marquette Hotel was thankfully spared from the wrecking ball. Old Town Cape has emerged as an advocate for the downtown area. And the Isle Casino will bring new people and more money into the community, and further investment in downtown will help to tie the university, casino, and River Campus together and spark reinvestment in Cape's historic core. And if anyone has seen the city's comprehensive plan, they would know there are city leaders that have an extraordinary vision for downtown Cape Girardeau and the potential that lies within it.

But too often I've heard in Cape Girardeau that transformative projects can't be done. The people won't support an art film theater or an upscale restaurant. I believe these people are selling their community short. Students and residents alike would be drawn to a theater alternative to Cape West or Town Plaza, as well as a 24/7 restaurant in my opinion. As others have said, there are people with high incomes in Cape Girardeau, and while students don't traditionally have a lot of disposable income, they're willing to spend it if they have interesting dining and entertainment options beyond the norm.

I apologize for the length of this post, but I am genuinely excited to see that someone has finally stepped forward to seize upon the potential that lies along Broadway and in downtown Cape Girardeau. To quote John Lennon, "you may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one". I'm glad I'm not alone in dreaming of a more vibrant downtown area, and I'm glad someone has the financial ability and vision to make great things happen in downtown Cape Girardeau.

-- Posted by SEMO2STL on Wed, Jan 4, 2012, at 1:42 AM

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