Jon K. Rust

Jon K. Rust is publisher of the Southeast Missourian and co-president of Rust Communications.


Dreaming big in Cape Girardeau

When Gov. Matt Blunt announced the DREAM Initiative to assist downtown revitalization in communities outside the state's major metropolises, Cape Girardeau Mayor Jay Knudtson charged his staff to make sure Cape was at the top of the list.

A cooperative effort was launched between the city, Old Town Cape and the Cape Girardeau Area Chamber of Commerce to submit the necessary documents. Sure enough, Cape was the first community recognized by Blunt with the designation.

Two years later, in part because of DREAM, economic development in the downtown has been infused with more than $2.5 million, and the most exciting aspects of the project are still to come.

The value of being a DREAM community wasn't clear at the start. Even as Governor Blunt made the initial announcement at the foot of the KFVS building, local officials admitted, "We're excited to be named, but we're still not sure what it means."

In part, the lack of clarity was a function of the newness of the program. Cape Girardeau was the first, so there were no previous models or benefit analyses yet. But in larger part, the uncertainty was a function of the terms of the initiative itself. DREAM doesn't bring specific dollars or projects with it. Indeed, little outside of an initial grant for planning is guaranteed. Instead, the initiative brings research processes, planning consulting and the promise that grant requests from the area will get special attention in Jefferson City. The actual planning, grant writing, fund matches and decisions to move forward still have to be done locally.

Last week, the key organizations within DREAM held a community forum at the future site of a privately funded children's museum being developed on Broadway, in part thanks to tax credits garnered through the program. Local representatives from the city, chamber and Old Town Cape joined with those from the Missouri Department of Economic Development, the Missouri Development Finance Board and the Missouri Housing Development Commission to explain the accomplishments of DREAM to date, and the status going forward. Urban planning firm Peckman Guyton Albers & Viets Inc. (PGAV), which was hired by the state to work with DREAM communities, played a central role in the communication.

Many of the accomplishments so far revolve around surveys, organizational analysis, design guidelines, market analysis and community assessments. While much of this is soft stuff, which are means to an end, and would be disappointing as ends in themselves, hard accomplishments have been achieved too, adding up to the more than $2.5 million in funds for items like the Fountain Street extension project, a new riverfront parking and public restroom facility, tax credits for the renovation of Schultz School and other block grants.

Two central themes that carried throughout comments made by PGAV:

1. DREAM provides the tools, but ultimate success depends on how communities use them, and Cape Girardeau has been a roaring success in putting initial plans into action.

2. In contrast to many outstate towns, Cape Girardeau's downtown is blessed with a considerable roster of impressive assets, whether they are the river, the university, the downtown architecture, a solid if currently unspectacular business base, impressive neighborhoods and several areas ripe for development.

In the next several months, final reports will begin to be released. Among them: a retail market analysis, financial assistance review, destination assessment and downtown strategic plan. That's when the tough decisions will be placed on the table. Which projects should be at the top of the community's priorities, and who is going to take the lead? Ideas that resonated among those I spoke with included retail development targeting, destination development and streetscaping, but there were numerous and exciting other ones too. Thankfully, the planning assistance from DREAM helps identify organizational structures and funding sources to turn dreams into reality.

As already stated, the DREAM open house was held at the future site of the Discovery Playhouse Children's Museum, which is the former Walther's Furniture building on Broadway. For almost all of those in attendance, this was the first time in many years inside the building. Ceilings and walls have been cleared to bring out the original structure. Some other infrastructure improvements are already underway. Although much is yet to be done, it is an impressive space, with high ceilings and ample light. The potential for a children's museum is real.

To turn such projects into reality, however, takes money. The DREAM Initiative has helped attain tax credits, and some donors will be able to get as much as 80 percent of what they donate off their taxes. That's a great deal for anyone who believes that an inside place for kids and grandkids to learn and play — think Magic House in St. Louis — would benefit the quality of life for families here.

To their credit, museum organizers have been aggressive in holding costs down. But if Cape Girardeau is going to have something truly special — that meets the potential — it will need donations from as many people as possible, big donations and small.

For more information about making a donation to the Discovery Playhouse Southeast Missouri Children's Museum, contact Martha Brown at 573-587-6555. All donations are tax-deductible.

Jon K. Rust is the publisher of the Southeast Missourian. Email: jrust@semissourian.com.