Riley says risk taking essential to Cape's progress

Sunday, February 26, 2012
The Mississippi River sets the backdrop for Jim Riley of Red Letter Communications. (Laura Simon)

Jim Riley lost hope for a Cape Girardeau casino at least 15 times. He almost gave away all the riverfront land he'd been buying one parcel at a time over years.

He knew there was a better use for Cape Girardeau's riverfront than overgrown weeds. At first, Riley didn't know what the property might become.

"I bought the land down there because I just love the riverfront," he said.

But he never gave up. And now, steel stretches toward the sky as his dream of a casino is expected to become reality by year's end.

Friend and fellow downtown businessman David Knight convinced Riley that a casino was the best use for the property and the two formed Dream Big, LLC. Together they recruited Isle of Capri to Cape Girardeau.

But Riley's dream doesn't end there.

"I think the casino and the jobs and new visitors it will bring to Cape and our riverfront is a very good thing. But if we can find a way to leverage the new awareness and visitors and even the new tax revenue ... if we can introduce a multiplier to create significant new development and widespread opportunity and many more new jobs ... that would make a good thing a whole lot better," Riley said.

Riley believes it's important for Cape Girardeau to build on its rich heritage and to enhance, not replace, what's already here.

"I think we're going to have to enlist some new expertise and probably be willing to adapt to some new thinking," he said.

Despite the city's assets including Southeast Missouri State University, local hospitals, existing industries, and its location, Riley said there are many challenges to future growth.

"Competition in America for jobs and resources and development is so fierce that nothing significant will happen without strong leadership, public-private partnerships and a lot of operation from everyone involved," he said.

There will be risks involved, but risk motivates Riley.

"I think pressure and tension and the ability to make or lose money is vital to all business and certainly development," said Riley, who is the founder and CEO of Red Letter Communications, an advertising agency in Cape Girardeau.

Riley wants to win. He's driven by fear, desire, knowing that he has to deliver the goods to the client later that day and knowing it better be good.

"I think things work much better when someone stands to win or lose. And the more they stand to make, or lose, the stronger the motivation," Riley said.

After starting 30 years ago in business, Red Letter is again expanding. The advertising agency is moving its operations to a larger location at 16 N. Spanish St. this year. The historic building, previously used as a retail outlet, is undergoing extensive renovations.

Riley describes his general philosophy as "enlightened self interest."

"Sure we want to make a profit and it's important that we do, but we always strive to do as much good along the way as possible. Good for our clients, our staff and absolutely for our community," he said.

One of Riley's current focuses is working with the Cape Girardeau Area Chamber of Commerce to mount a marketing campaign to entice baby boomers to move to Cape Girardeau.

"I am definitely very interested in the boomer generation. In marketing you have to be. The boomers are the biggest and richest generation in the history of the world and here in America we -- and I just barely qualify by the way -- have virtually reinvented everything," Riley said.

There are 80 million baby boomers and 10,000 Americans turning 60 everyday.

"They're going to be different from their parents' generation. They're going to live longer. They've got access to better health care and I think we've got a lot of assets that are attractive to boomers," Riley said.

His goal is to attract 2,000 new boomer residents to Cape Girardeau over the next five to 10 years.

"It would transform the community. They're mentors, they volunteer, they'd fill our restaurants, they'd fill our doctors offices, they have the grandkids come and visit them. They have nothing but time and money," he said.

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