It's a critical time for Old Town Cape

Four major projects are on the drawing board that could catapult Cape Girardeau's downtown to the so-called "next level."

The refurbishing of the Marquette Hotel into state offices, the construction of a new federal court house building, the new Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge and the proposed River Campus project are the paints that could splash some color onto downtown's unfinished canvas.

The local, state and federal governments have put their chips on the table to help the historic section of Cape Girardeau. It would be a missed opportunity if the local private sector did not do the same.

That's where Old Town Cape, a Missouri Main Street organization, comes in.

Catherine Dunlap has been the Old Town Cape director for two years next month. In those two years, she has been trying with mixed success to unify downtown business and property owners with the city and other government agencies.

Though there isn't much tangible evidence of Old Town Cape's progress so far, Dunlap asserts the groundwork is in place for downtown improvement.

She points to stores that have, without incentives, worked toward Old Town Cape's vision of historical ambiance. Ten Southeast Missouri State University students developed guidelines for improving store facades. Plans are in the works for developing a Fountain Street entrance to downtown from the new Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge. Private investors have spent $1.8 million in two years improving their properties. The organization has a Web site.

As Old Town Cape matures, more incentives will be offered. Already, Old Town Cape has qualified for tax credits.

But as other Missouri Main Street directors say, the program only works if the business owners are dedicated and united. State officials say progress should be evident in years five through 10 of the program.

Until then, it's wise to reserve final judgment on the commitment of downtown business owners and, ultimately, the success of Old Town Cape.

Nevertheless, the next year remains critical for the Old Town Cape director and downtown business owners.