Marquette cleanup coming as ownership changes

Friday, August 30, 2002

HISTORIC OFFICE SPACE

By Sam Blackwell ~ Southeast Missourian

A Cape Girardeau company is devising a plan for removing asbestos, lead-based paint and contaminated oil from the Marquette Hotel, the first step in a $6 million renovation of the building that is expected to take 15 months.

Mead Environmental Associates is doing the work for Prost Builders, Inc., the Jefferson City, Mo., company that bought the deteriorating 74-year-old hotel this summer and plans to turn it into office and retail space.

The two-decade-long struggle to find a use for the six-story, Spanish-style hotel in downtown Cape Girardeau officially ended Thursday when owner Ruby Bullock signed over the deed to Prost Builders.

"I guess I'm the proud owner now," said Vaughn Prost, chairman of the corporation's board.

The transfer of ownership occurred at the nearby Royal N'Orleans restaurant in front of about 30 civic leaders, members of the Bullock family and historic preservationists. Vi Keys, who performed at the hotel with her late husband, Eddie, beginning at the end of the 1950s, played piano while guests at the reception ate and talked.

"I like the challenge," Prost told the group. "I think it's all going to come out fine."

He singled out the part historic preservationists, most of them students or former students at Southeast Missouri State University, played in making sure the public and elected officials were aware of the building's cultural worth to the city.

"We're starting a new era here for downtown Cape," he said.

The company paid $350,000 for the building. The asking price was $655,000.

Approximately 100 state employees will work in offices on three floors of the building. The state will pay Prost $2.39 million to lease the offices for 10 years. The other half of the space will be leased to retail businesses and to other offices.

Real estate agent Thomas M. Meyer, who handled the sale, said one restaurant and other businesses have inquired about renting space. Information about the property will be disseminated internationally, Meyer said.

Catherine Dunlap, executive director of Old Town Cape, said downtown restaurants and businesses obviously will benefit from having 100 state employees working at the Marquette Hotel. The renovation also will act as "a catalyst for redevelopment," she said. She hopes the developer's use of historic preservation tax credits will inspire other projects downtown.

21 years vacant

When it opened in 1928, the hotel at Broadway and Fountain Street was touted as the finest between St. Louis and Memphis. But it fell into disrepair and has been vacant the past 21 years.

The city condemned the hotel in 2000 and in January 2001 gave Bullock two months to sell the building, renovate it or see it demolished. A series of deadline extensions followed as Bullock was unable to find a buyer and the city could not afford the $1 million cost of razing the structure.

Historic preservation students Jeremy Wells and Robin Seiler, meanwhile, got the building put on the National Register of Historic Places. That was a factor in the company choosing the building when the company started looking in Cape Girardeau, Prost said, although he added that other buildings could have qualified for the registry eventually. "It was a lot of help in moving the project along."

Last August, Prost's Marquette Hotel project was one of nine bids for the contract to provide state office space in Cape Girardeau. A December 2001 executive order signed by Gov. Bob Holden requiring the state's facilities managers to lease space in central downtown districts raised the Marquette's stock. The state already had a policy of renting space in historic buildings.

The Marquette offered every real estate agent's byword: Location. "Location and community support for a renovation," Prost said.

The contract was awarded in July.

Former Southeast students Pamela McCutchen and Mandy Wagoner were there to witness the deed transfer. Both live in St. Louis now but became interested in the hotel's fate while taking an architectural design class at Southeast in 1995. They did their class project on the hotel. They wrote the historical section for the National Register application. And they became part of a Marquette Hotel support group that went to Cape Girardeau City Council meetings every time the city began threatening to tear down the hotel. They also established a Web site for the hotel.

Mixed emotions

McCutchen felt both happy and sad Thursday. "It's been our baby for so long," she said.

Wagoner now works on historic preservation projects in St. Louis. She said this one is especially challenging. "A lot of environmental issues have to be taken care of."

The project qualifies as a "brownfield site," an Environmental Protection Agency designation for contaminated or polluted redevelopment property. Prost will get tax credits for removing the asbestos and other contaminants.

Carol Bullock, a Maryland woman who represented her mother during the negotiations, said her primary feeling Thursday was relief.

The long search for a buyer for the hotel required finding someone who has vision, she said.

An anchor such as the state office contract was always the missing element in previous attempts to rescue the Marquette Hotel, Prost said.

sblackwell@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 182

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