Businessman's River Campus gift says a lot

The vaulted ceiling with windows makes for a bright family room in this house at 1659 Lyndhurst in Cape Girardeau.Sikeston businessman Donald C. Bedell's generous donation to Southeast Missouri State University's River Campus project couldn't have come at a better time considering setbacks that have prevented the university from moving ahead as quickly as it would like with the project.

Bedell's gift is substantially more than $1 million and is the largest single cash gift in the 18-year history of the university foundation.

The state has agreed to fund nearly half of the cost of the $36 million River Campus project to turn the former St. Vincent's Seminary that overlooks the Mississippi River into a visual and performing arts campus. The university foundation is trying to raise $10 million, and Bedell's gift put the effort above the halfway mark.

Bedell's gift means a performing arts center, envisioned by university officials as the crown jewel of the project, will be named the Donald C. Bedell Performance Hall. Plans are for the city and university to develop a first-rate cultural arts program that could include concerts by nationally known symphony orchestras, professional ballets and touring Broadway shows.

Bedell says he didn't give the money so that the center would carry his name. Like most major benefactors, he wasn't seeking attention.

The university has decided to lower its guidelines on the amounts donors must give for a building or other facilities to bear their names. Guidelines unveiled last year by the university foundation listed a number of naming options, including $6 million to have the entire River Campus arts school named after the donor and $3 million for the performance hall to bear the donor's name. Naming options went as low as $10,000 for a dance dressing room and shower.

What remains uncertain is Cape Girardeau's role in the financing plan. City voters in 1998 approved the use of a restaurant and motel tax to generate nearly $9 million for the project. Businessman Jim Drury challenged the vote in a lawsuit and won, and the city appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, which hasn't yet set a date for hearing the appeal.

That is why Bedell's gift toward such a worthwhile project is so timely. Should the Supreme Court uphold the ruling against Cape Girardeau, which was based on a constitutional question involving the wording of ordinances and not the legality of using the tax money for the River Campus, the city should hold another election.

If that happens, gifts like Bedell's and those of others should prove to voters that the project remains as important to the university and city today as it did when they first voted to fund it three years ago.