Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Downtown Malden

If I had to live in any town in southeast Missouri (Cape Girardeau notwithstanding), I would live in Malden. This quiet little town in the valley of Crowley's Ridge is pleasant, the people are really nice, it has a good grocery store that sells leeks and cilantro, and, most importantly, Malden is taking great strides to create economic opportunity in light of not-so-recent depression. Malden has been approved for a DREAM grant, state-sponsored grant funding offered to small communities throughout Missouri to reinvigorate once-thriving downtowns. Paving the way for a viable downtown community is James Ealey, who runs Pizza Express on Malden's South Madison Street.

James moved to Malden 9 years ago when he saw an opportunity to fire up his pizza oven in a late 19th century downtown building. He hired a local artist to paint a lavish trompe l'oeil of a bustling downtown scene on the far wall. James affixed fake wisteria and ivy over the entrance, the windows, and on the railings, creating a bright, warm environment. He kept the original 19th century floor tiles and the tongue and groove paneling. His small, corner location attracts locals and customer from neighboring towns like Risco and Lilbourn on weekends. Some nights, his restaurant is full, others it's empty. He delivers pizzas to towns as far as 25 miles away.
Pizza Express has outlived several other commercial attempts in downtown Malden. Chain retailers have moved into the city, filling the void indirectly caused by the closing of the Malden Air Force base in the mid-1960s. WalMart, Taco Bell, KFC, Sonic and a few others have built their stores on Hwy. 25, a stone's throw from downtown. But to get to Taco Bell from Hwy. 61, you have to pass through the mostly shuttered downtown. James remains stalwart in his business venture; he's heard the DREAM grant is pending and if he's lasted 9 years in the current economic climate, he can wait for the promise of a thriving downtown which will only mean more business.

In light of the economic depression in Malden, efforts are underway to remove the town mayor and replace the office with a City Planner who will expedite the revitalization process. The curator at the Malden Historical Museum thinks the town needs to hire someone unrelated to the city, one who "doesn't owe anyone in Malden a dime." The city has apparently had issues in the past with private and civic businesses interfering with one another. The curator would like to see someone in the office who genuinely cares about the community, who will give the town a new focus. Meanwhile, her museum, a vast storehouse of local history, survives on donations. Since there are few reasons to come to Malden, the museum doesn't see a lot of visitors (If you're ever in Malden, see the museum--after the staff learn your name, they'll call you "honey" and "dear" all afternoon.).

With proper urban planning, Malden could be a viable community once again. The drive-in theater, bowling alleys, five and dime stores, clothing stores all disappeared when the Malden Air Base closed. This nice community needs a shot in the arm. They need industry, recreational opportunities, and a working downtown.

I've passed Pizza Express once a week since December, 2005, but never went in. After several days of early rising caused by the 6 am arrival of roofers, I decided to stop in for a cup of coffee. James said he had been waiting for someone to want one, because he didn't want to make a whole pot for himself. We sat and talked about Malden politics and the DREAM grant. According to James, the money can't come soon enough. While Pizza Express continues to do brisk business, anyone can see that he would love to see a bustling downtown, not just on his walls, but outside his windows.

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