New life for dead end

Saturday, December 21, 2002

Jackson would have a new entrance into town, one lined with convenience stores, hotels and strip malls rivaling the Route K interchange. Cape Girardeau could have a new east-west route along its northern edge. Southeast Missouri State University could have a technology research park on ground that is currently home to grazing cattle.

And Cape Girardeau businessman Earl Norman could end up with lucrative commercial development on land he owns.

But none of that can happen until the Missouri Department of Transportation builds the East Main Street interchange on Interstate 55, beginning the project in 2005 and ending in 2006 at the earliest, state highway officials say.

The city of Jackson and the state already have agreed to split the cost of the more than $5 million interchange project. But the city wants to recoup its expenses -- plus pay for extending East Main Street -- by teaming with other local governments and Norman to set up a transportation development district and tax businesses that would locate in the district.

The project could connect East Main Street on the west side and County Road 618 on the east side, creating an east-west corridor between Cape Girardeau and Jackson.

All groups with interests in the interchange are considering setting up a tax-and-bond-funded district, a concept that's caught on in Missouri over the past five years.

This would be the first transportation development district in Southeast Missouri, but this funding scheme has been used 27 times in the state since 1997 -- primarily in the St. Louis and Kansas City areas -- for parking garages, roads, traffic signals and interchanges.

Six of the districts were established this year, four of them since August.

Such districts rely largely on sales taxes to fund road improvements, said St. Louis lawyer Jim Mello who is working with local officials on such a plan.

The plan would involve the cities of Jackson and Cape Girardeau, Cape Girardeau County, Southeast and Norman.

The district -- which would require approval from a circuit court judge to set up -- could issue bonds for a term of up to 40 years and levy a variety of taxes to retire the debt. The district would need MoDOT approval because the highway interchange would be maintained by the state.

The district could levy sales taxes and special licenses for businesses that would set up shop in the district, Mello said.

But details still haven't been worked out, including just what taxes would be levied on businesses and how much.

'Business will come'

As it stands, part of the undeveloped area is home to the Southeast Missouri State University farm, which covers more than 300 acres stretching across both sides of I-55. Norman's Benton Hill Investment Co. owns about 85 acres of land on the west side of the interstate.

"I think if you build the interchange, business will come," said Jackson Mayor Paul Sander, who hopes a decision will be made next year on whether to set up a transportation district. "The possibilities are endless."

But Norman cautioned that taxes should be kept low or stores would find it hard to compete with others located at other I-55 exits.

Getting retail stores to locate at the East Main interchange would be crucial to the transportation development district, Cape Girardeau Mayor Jay Knudtson said. Non-retail businesses in Southeast's proposed technology park won't generate sales taxes, he said. But they could be taxed in other ways through license fees or special property assessments.

"The university needs to make a commitment to foster economic development at the interchange in the way of retail centers," Knudtson said.

School officials insist such retail development will occur. "Certainly, there will be some retail because you need support services for a park," said Don Dickerson, president of Southeast's board of regents.

As for the transportation district, Sander said it could pay half of the $5 million cost of the interchange work, and fund an additional estimated cost of $1 million to connect the interchange to existing city and county roads.

Jackson's concrete-paved East Main Street currently dead ends at a hilly, wooded area that gives no sign that the interstate is only about a mile to the east.

Jackson's city limits already extend to the west side of the interstate. Cape Girardeau's city limits are within 2 1/2 miles of the proposed site.

As part of the project, East Main Street would have to be extended about a mile to connect with the proposed interchange and another mile of road would have to be built east of I-55 to connect to County Road 618, Sander said.

Knudtson said the city of Cape Girardeau can't afford to put any money into the project now, but he wants to see the interchange built because it could open up future road development on the city's north side.

A transportation district could be the answer, he said, but cautioned that no agreement has been reached.

Counting on SEMO

Sander is counting on the university and Norman donating the right-of-way for the project. "It does nothing but help the property owners," he said.

It could help Southeast develop a biotechnology park, school officials said.

The biotechnology park could house businesses looking to develop new and better crops, alternative fuels, plastics and even medicines, Dickerson said.

A biotechnology park could end regular farming there. Southeast has operated the donated farm since 1976. School officials said they will look for other land to farm if a technology park is built.

Dickerson said Southeast likely would lease land to businesses rather than sell the property. That way, Southeast can control development, he said.

The Southeast Missouri University Foundation, which owns the farm, has a committee studying possible plans for a biotechnology park.

Dickerson said the park will take years to develop. "We don't expect it to be any great shakes for about 10 years," he said.

335-6611, extension 123

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