Making down town like a new town

Tuesday, October 15, 2002

Business Today

Revitalizing a downtown district takes enthusiasm and long-term commitment.

Cape Girardeau's Main Street organization -- Old Town Cape -- is facing a significant period. It is a volunteer-driven organization that provides educational and organizational revitalization support to the downtown business district.

Old Town Cape executive director Catherine Dunlap has been on the job two years, laying much of the groundwork for downtown improvement and trying to get business leaders and city leaders to meld.

Soon, Dunlap, the Old Town Cape Board of Directors and a state adviser will meet to plot a five-year plan.

Dunlap said the board will try to develop a plan that will best complement the downtown area's major upcoming projects: the Marquette Hotel renovation into state offices; the completion of the Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge; the new federal building; and the proposed Southeast Missouri State University river campus for performing arts.

Also of concern are six vacant buildings downtown. They are located at 35 N. Main, 113 Independence, 26 N. Spanish, 121 Broadway, 835 Broadway and 821-D Broadway. All are available for purchase or lease.

The vacant buildings not withstanding, it seems that the pieces are in place for a downtown turnaround, and many downtown people -- including members of the Downtown Merchants Association -- show enthusiasm. But ultimately the future of downtown, or at least the success of the Main Street program, will depend on putting ardor into action, said Randy Gray, the Missouri Main Street coordinator.

Normally, Main Street programs have their most visible improvements within five to 10 years of starting, Gray said. The state's involvement in any program is only to provide techniques and strategies.

Downtown revitalization is an ongoing effort, and it's up to the local communities to raise the money to carry out those strategies, Gray said.

Both Dunlap and board of directors president Ted Coalter say they have been impressed with the financial backing and the volunteer efforts in the first two years.

"Things are going very, very well," Coalter said. "You've got to crawl before you walk. What we've got is people breaking doors down saying 'What can I do?' The support isn't just coming from downtown, but all over Cape. They see the value of downtown and we're thankful they feel that way."

Dunlap said she is thrilled with the financial backing of private businesses. Since November 2000, private businesses have spent $17 on their properties for every dollar donated to Old Town Cape. She considers this an impressive ratio, since few incentives have been offered yet. She said a mature Main Street program averages $25 per $1 donation. She compliments the Downtown Merchants Association for its interest in the endeavor.

Two businesses in particular stand out in Dunlap's mind as pioneers of Old Town Cape's vision.

Dunlap said she was able to provide some consulting help for Renaissance and Lang Jewelers, which have both been remodeled to bring back the historical features of their buildings.

Dunlap said she hopes others follow suit, especially since a group of 10 Southeast Missouri State University students volunteered to develop guidelines for improving facades for the historic buildings downtown. This project is in the final editing process as Old Town Cape works in conjunction with the city's Historic Preservation Commission.

Old Town Cape received good news several weeks ago as Gov. Bob Holden announced $101,970 in tax credits for those who donate to Old Town Cape as part of the Neighborhood Assistance Program.

Dunlap said it is a 50-percent tax credit, meaning a business could donate $2,000 and receive a $1,000 tax credit later.

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