Scott and Lisa Blank connect family history to River Campus redevelopment project

Scott and Lisa Blank pose for a photo.
Sarah Yenesel ~ B Magazine

Scott Blank has a vivid childhood memory of the former St. Vincent’s College and Seminary property, now the home of Southeast Missouri State University’s River Campus.

“I’d take a glove and play catch all by myself by bouncing a tennis ball off the old handball court,” Blank said.

“I did that for hours at a time while my dad worked at our family’s convenience store at 400 Morgan Oak,” he added.

Blank and his wife Lisa are Southeast alumni and have a big dream to redevelop the area around the River Campus — an area long ago known as a German immigrant settlement that morphed into a bustling core of business activity by the mid-20th century.

“There hasn’t been a lot of activity down there in my time, and it’s fallen into a state of disrepair,” said Scott, co-owner with Lisa of Bi-State Oil Co., which was purchased from his parents Robert and Gaye Blank in 2003.

Bi-State operates Southern Convenience stores — two in Cape Girardeau and one in Jackson.

The husband-and-wife endeavor known as Chief Property Development LLC will re-purpose two buildings along South Frederick and Morgan Oak streets and will build a third structure to connect them, creating a centralized art complex for SEMO students studying ceramics, woodworking, metal sculpture, painting and 3-D printing.

Cape Girardeau City Council on Jan. 19 approved the issuance of $10 million in industrial revenue bonds for the project.

Scott and Lisa’s vision is becoming reality.

Phase 1, repurposing the 10,000-square-foot former Cape Restaurant Supply building at 340 S. Frederick St. and a nearby 5,000-square-foot structure, purchased by the Blanks in December 2018, is expected to be completed by June.

If all goes as planned, the university will move in during July in time for fall classes to begin in late August.

The husband and wife team of Scott and Lisa Blank re-purpose two buildings along South Frederick and Morgan Oak Streets to create a centralized art complex for SEMO students.
Sarah Yenesel ~ B Magazine

The larger building will house ceramics education; the smaller one will be devoted to painting.

Phase 2, projected to be finished by summer 2023, will construct a new connecting building running perpendicular to the existing structures, housing academic space plus metal and wood sculpture and 3-D printing education.

An in-between outdoor exhibit space will be created in the courtyard.

“Southeast will have all the dirty arts in one venue,” said Scott, a definition requiring some elaboration.

“’Dirty arts’ means hands-on art, as distinguished from performance art,” explained Lisa.

When it comes to artistic inclination, Lisa is generally the more adept and knowledgeable of the pair.

A former chief financial officer at Cottonwood Residential Treatment Center and a one-time senior financial counselor of Southeast’s Student Financial Services, Lisa is a pianist and, for a while before earning an undergraduate degree in advertising, studied interior design at SEMO.

Lisa recalled once buying tickets to the Nutcracker ballet.

After the performance began, Scott leaned over to his wife and said, “When do they start talking?”

Lisa replied patiently, “They don’t talk, Scott.”

Spend some time with the Blanks and what is quickly revealed is the grateful appreciation the couple has for family — a family which through multiple generations has shown its commitment to this general area of Cape.

“My maternal grandfather, Clyde Foeste, the founder of Bi-State, ran a service station out of a house in the 300-block of Morgan Oak beginning in the late 1930s. Later, he had the opportunity to buy it and he did, running the business out of the main level and supporting his family who lived on the second floor,” explained Scott, who noted his mother was reared in that house.

“Behind the home was my grandfather’s woodshop, and I remember watching him make, by hand, wooden boat paddles (and) I was in charge of cleaning up and keeping the fire going in the stove while he worked.”

The property was later sold and demolished when the university was acquiring property for the River Campus.

“Later, (Clyde) purchased a larger piece of property at 400 Morgan Oak to build a new location,” he added, noting his great-grandfather, in the years before the store, farmed this parcel — growing corn, potatoes and other produce to sell to support himself and his wife.

Scott recalled Clyde Foeste also owned and operated Southern Boat and Motor at 416 Morgan Oak.

“My grandfather really loved working on boat motors and sporting goods equipment there, and I have really good memories,” he explained.

The Blank family remodeled the building and leased it back to SEMO for band offices and storage.

Scott also remembers with fondness the inspiration of his late father, Bob.

“While River Campus was under construction, Dad and I went to see the inside of the former seminary,” remembered Scott.

“We saw all the exposed beams and it started a dialogue between us of what our family might do in the future.” He noted the family’s decision to sell 400 Morgan Oak to SEMO led to the university using the property as a band practice field.

Scott also credits his parents with making the art expansion project financially viable.

Bob Blank died in 2012 after five years of complications stemming from a massive stroke suffered on Father’s Day 2007.

“Until the stroke, Dad enjoyed his retirement on property the family owned in Gordonville, and it was his sanctuary,” said the younger Blank.

Upon Bob’s death, the 275-acre tract was inherited by Scott and his sister, Deena Ring, but the siblings agreed the upkeep of the property would be too overwhelming given their busy lives.

“We sold 180 acres of it and the capital generated by the transaction allowed our vision to be more than a dream, that we could actually do this,” said Scott.

Blank said he had a barn on the site dismantled and will be using the wood in the build-out of the River Campus expansion.

“Our architects questioned this, but I was adamant,” said Blank, adding, “This will symbolically connect my father’s efforts and resources to the project.”

The reclaimed wood will be cleaned and repurposed along one of the major walls in the ceramics building, Blank said.

“My father taught me a lot of life’s lessons that Lisa and I are passing on to our three children, ages 9, 7 and 4. We call them ‘Bobisms,’” he added.

Scott said he is grateful for the support of city council; Ken and Rhonda Stilson, theatre professors at River Campus; Southeast president Carlos Vargas and the Board of Regents; SEMO facilities management director Angela Meyer and the current and former university vice presidents for finance and administration, Brad Sheriff and Kathy Mangels, respectively.

“Through our conversations, a continuing thread we heard and internalized was the (university’s) need for additional space and centralized space,” Scott said.

Mangels, who retired from SEMO last year, was involved with the project at its very inception.

“(Kathy) has come on board with us and will help us see this project to its completion,” said Scott.

“So, you see, this new project is emotional for us, the culmination of a longstanding passion and the subcontractors we hired had to understand this for us to work with them,” explained Scott, pointing out in particular St. Louis-based Lawrence Group, whom the Blanks contracted with for architectural services.

Scott said Chief Property Development has a lease-purchase agreement with Southeast.

The Blanks will lease the complex to SEMO for 10 years, then Southeast will have the option to buy it.

“Lisa and I have a desire to help our alma mater and the surrounding community grow,” Scott said, noting the project’s philosophy comes down to three words.

• Retention: a desire for Southeast to be able to keep students.

• Recruitment: a plan for SEMO to attract new students.

• Exposure: a goal to reclaim a once-vital area of Cape Girardeau to benefit both the city and the university.

“Maybe what we’re doing with the art expansion will inspire others to invest in redevelopment in this area,” said Scott.

Lisa Blank has the last word.

“We care about growth and tourism, and we are all-in: we love the university, and we love Cape Girardeau,” she said.

Scott and Lisa Blank pose for a photo.
Sarah Yenesel ~ B Magazine