CAT Tracks

From the Southeast Missourian...

Link to Original Story

Bulldozer tracks are all that remain of buildings on the west side of
Commercial Avenue between Eighth Street and Tenth Street in downtown
Cairo. A grant obtained from stimulus funds was used to demolish the
two blocks of decrepit buildings. (Kit Doyle)

On the right track: Cairo is showing signs of improvement after decades of economic decline

By Rudi Keller ~ Southeast Missourian

CAIRO, Ill. -- On the east side of Commercial Avenue, the pungent smell of decay invades the nostrils of anyone who peeks inside one of the long-unused storefronts that collapsing ceilings and broken windows allow every breeze to penetrate.

The same was true on the west side of the street as well until early this month. But in one of the most visible signs of progress toward eliminating the dozens of decrepit buildings in this poor town of 3,600, every structure on two blocks of Cairo's downtown has been razed. The result is a much cleaner, ready-for-redevelopment look that city leaders view as a welcome change.

There is other evidence -- some visible, some not -- that Cairo, a city that has been losing people since 1940, is at last finding its footing. A major industrial property at the northern end of town is being put back into use after nearly a decade. And city finances, left in a shambles after four years of all-out war between then-mayor Paul Farris and the city council, have been returned to a businesslike status.

"I think the city is making great progress and there are more and better things to come," said Mayor Judson Childs, who was elected in April 2007. "We have got our eyes on some things we hope to work out. But I don't want the citizens to get too hopeful. We had some things we thought were going to be great but fell through, but we have our eyes on something pretty positive."

When Cairo makes the news, it has generally been something bad. The fighting in City Hall from 2003 to 2007 presented a crazy spectacle. More recently, a string of unsolved arsons targeting abandoned homes has plagued the city. Last week, the bodies of two women were found shot in a home that was set ablaze.

Recovery takes time and effort, said Childs, a retired prison warden who won a 10-way primary in February 2007 before winning the April general election. Childs doesn't want to hog the spotlight, which he said should rightly be on the people laboring to find money and methods to make things better.

"When I was running I wasn't looking for a job because this job pays weakly, and I don't mean W-E-E-K-L-Y," he said.

On his first day in office, a Cairo city garbage truck was turned away at a Kentucky landfill because of unpaid dumping charges. Childs directed that half the outstanding $8,000 bill be paid immediately.

Now, the city is paying its current bills, has put a substantial dent in past-due amounts and had four years of audits completed. Its credit with its vendors has been restored, city clerk Lorrie Hesselrode said, and a bank default from the final months of Ferris' term has been cleared up.

"Being able to pay our bills every month is wonderful," Hesselrode said. "When I came in here we were way behind. We have alleviated all of that."

Commercial Avenue was once a bustling shopping area attracting people from a wide area. J.C. Penney, Rhodes Furniture and Woolworth & Co. all had stores, as did local merchants and bankers. Photos from the early 1970s show crowds on the street each Saturday. But as the stores closed, no other merchants stepped forward.

Cairo peaked in population in 1920, when the U.S. Census Bureau counted 15,203 people. A dip, then rebound followed, but since 1940 the population has dwindled from 14,407 to 3,632 in 2000.

The Commercial Avenue cleanup project is being financed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency with $250,000 from Superfund money dedicated to time-critical projects, said Kevin Turner, site coordinator for the agency. Tests around the decaying buildings found elevated levels of lead were being released into the environment, he said.

Of the 13 properties cleared, most are owned by the city or Alexander County, Ill., because of defaults on taxes. Once the project is completed -- only an old bank vault with 5-inch reinforced concrete walls remains standing -- the land will be ready for new construction, Turner said.

There was very little that could be saved, he said. Some trim off the bank building was about all.

"It is sad to see lumber that was put up 120 years ago get crushed," he said.

Additional work, including demolition on the east side of Commercial Avenue, will be funded by a $750,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce, said Stacey Thomas, Alexander County project manager for the Southernmost Illinois Delta Empowerment Zone. Cairo Public Utilities Co. obtained the grant, in part because the lack of city audits made Cairo ineligible for many grant programs.

Work is already being done to figure out how to market the now-available properties. "A planning committee is working on that right now," Thomas said.

At the north end of town, Riverbend Rice Co., is consolidating its seed preparation into a single facility that was once the Burkhart factory, Cairo's largest industry in the 1960s. The building is being repainted, giving the highly visible structure between 37th Street and 34th Street a clean look.

Riverbend Rice Co. has offices in Cape Girardeau and employs seven people processing soybean, wheat and rice seeds under contract, owner Blake Gerard said. "Cairo works well for distribution of what we are doing," he said. "the economic atmosphere in Cairo is reasonable and there are incentives."

The company is leasing new equipment, and while it won't be hiring new workers right away, there is room to expand, Gerard said.

Less visible but just as important, Thomas said, are the demolition projects that have cleared 80 properties, mostly decrepit homes, in the past five years. Erasing the signs of decay will help Cairo project an image of a town taking care of its problems, she said.

"It is giving people a little bit more hope again that things are going to turn around because things have been down for so long," Thomas said.