A News Analysis
A year of highs and lows.
A year of change and controversy.
A year of tragedy and triumph.
For Starkville and Oktibbeha County, the year in local news encompassed all those things. As 2010 draws to a close, we pause to take a look at the top news stories for the year (in no particular order):
• Debate over Starkville’s sidewalk ordinance dominates debate at City Hall for much of the year, particularly during the fall.
The ordinance, implemented in 2009, requires all new residential or commercial developments or any renovation projects worth more than 50 percent of the value of a given property to include new sidewalks.
The ordinance’s intent is to improve pedestrian access to all areas of the city over time.
When some developers of smaller scale projects claimed the ordinance regulations were vague, the Starkville Board of Aldermen directed its appointed Transportation Committee to clarify the language in an attempt to make the regulations more easily enforceable.
But controversy erupted when the Golden Triangle Planning and Development District announced plans to construct a more than $3 million Senior Enrichment Center behind the agency’s facility on Miley Drive in the city’s industrial park.
Given the facility’s location, GTPDD director Rudy Johnson felt the ordinance regulations should apply to the project and threatened to move his agency’s office out of the city unless granted an exemption.
The issue was referred back to the Transportation Committee with the goal of creating a variance process within the sidewalk ordinance to allow exemptions to be granted, which has further intensified the debate.
The issue is still being actively discussed by city leaders.
• Discussion on implementing school uniforms and the ultimate adoption of a specific dress code policy for the Starkville School District was met with much resistance by numerous parents and other community members.
The policy was discussed by the SSD Board of Trustees over several months during the early part of the year, but many parents voiced objections amid concerns of increased clothing costs and restriction of student rights to self-expression through clothing.
After months of debate, a specific dress code was adopted requiring specific types of clothing for each of the SSD’s four major schools that was implemented with the start of the current 2010-2011 school year.
Some parents filed a lawsuit in Oktibbeha County Circuit Court seeking to overturn the dress code policy, but the suit was dismissed in November.
• The pending sale of a financially troubled Cadence Bank to a Texas investment firm made headlines throughout the fall.
In late September, just a few days after a deadline to meet federal capitalization requirements came and went, Cadence officials announced plans to merge with Jackson-based Trustmark Bank.
In the $23.8 million deal, Cadence shareholders would have exchanged 0.096993 shares of Trustmark stock tax-free at $2 a share and Trustmark was to buy preferred Cadence stock issued to the U.S. Treasury in January 2009 at a price of $30.05 million cash.
A few weeks later, the bank’s fate changed course entirely.
In early October, Cadence officials announced they would end the deal with Trustmark in favor of going with a proposal from Community Bancorp – known as CBC – to take the bank private. CBC officials offered to buy Cadence common shares at $2.50 per share and pay $38 million for the $44 million Treasury preferred shares.
Cadence officials cited several reasons for supporting the CBC, including that CBC offered a premium to the previous price, the move would preserve jobs and Cadence would be able to keep its name.
In December, shareholders voted to accept the CBC proposal. The acquisition will be the first for CBC, established to acquire, stabilize and operate failed or distressed U.S. banks. The company has about $1 billion in capital and has pledged to supply Cadence with about $150 to $200 million.
Officials connected to the deal believe it will receive federal approval in January or February.
• After an apartment fire claimed the lives of nine people to end 2009, April saw two major fires at local apartment complexes that saw both local families and Mississippi State students lose their possessions.
Amid extremely dry weather conditions and high winds, a fire on April 6 completely destroyed three buildings at the Crossgates Apartments complex off Stark Road, leaving dozens without possessions and homes.
The wind-driven blaze also threatened scores of nearby townhouses and adjacent apartment buildings.
Two weeks later, two buildings at the Campus Trails complex off Blackjack Road east of the Mississippi State campus were destroyed by a Sunday morning fire.
Though no residents were injured or killed, both fires resulted in an outpouring of support from the community as residents rushed to donate food, clothing and thousands of dollars to help the fire victims.
• Devastating tornadoes struck the area in April and December.
In April, a huge F-5 tornado touched down in Yazoo County and stayed on the ground for more than 150 miles, cutting a path of destruction that included Choctaw County and areas of Oktibbeha County.
One of the most powerful twisters ever to hit Mississippi, the storm garnered national media coverage after it destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses. Though damage in Oktibbeha County — where the weakened twister finally dissipated — was minimal, neighboring Choctaw County was ravaged.
All the counties affected by the tornado would be declared as a state and federal disaster area.
Just over three weeks ago, a smaller F-2 tornado touched down inside the Starkville city limits, cutting a path of destruction diagonally across the south and eastern areas of the city.
The worst damage occurred in The Pines Mobile Home Park off South Louisville Street, where cleanup efforts are ongoing. The tornado also damaged homes and other buildings in and around Pleasant Acres Subdivision, Highway 12 and in the Cotton District as it jumped through the city.
• One of the most significant economic development projects in recent history got a major boost in late October when the Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning approved a lease agreement between the Cotton Mill Development Group and Mississippi State University for the conversion of the E.E. Cooley Building — formerly the Stone Cotton Mill — into a conference center with an adjoining hotel.
The Cooley Building conversion is the anchor for the Cotton Mill Marketplace mixed use development that will include major and smaller retail stores, restaurants, office and residential space.
The approval of the lease significantly boosted the momentum for the Marketplace project, which has been in development for more than three years. In recent weeks, members of the development group have been providing regular updates to city and county officials regarding the project’s status.
Officials have expressed optimism about the project, which will transform a significant section of east Starkville directly across from the MSU campus.
• The Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors dealt with increasing public outcry over non-action in addressing road repairs across the county. At nearly every board meeting during 2010, some residents appeared before the supervisors to request repairs on their respective roads and were not wholly satisfied with officials’ response to their requests.
Supervisors repeatedly said that if a project is not included within the county’s four-year road plan, it may not get a look.
District 2 Supervisor Orlando Trainer has raised the issue of a large-scale road renovation program, only recently seeing action by his fellow supervisors in voting to authorize a road needs study countywide.
• Mississippi State University continued to weather the storm brought by continued reductions in state funding, with administrators beginning to implement recommendations by the appointed Select Committee on Efficiencies and Innovations in recent months.
The SCEI, meeting over several months in late 2009 and early this year, in February released its recommendations to streamline numerous aspects of the university’s operations as a means of generating significant financial savings across the board.
The proposal includes merging several departments and other academic units and eliminating or merging campus offices offering similar or identical services.
• Earlier this year, city and county officials joined forces to encourage high local participation in the 2010 Census.
A specific campaign had volunteers canvassing city and county neighborhoods to encourage residents to complete and return their Census forms to ensure an accurate population count for the community since many state and federal appropriations are determined by population.
• Discussion on the long-debated issue of a new municipal complex for Starkville saw renewed vigor as an appointed committee headed by former MSU Vice President Roy Ruby began to study facility needs for the city.
Committee discussions also expanded the proposed project’s scope to include a major renovation of City Hall, not just new facilities for the Starkville Police Department and Municipal Court.
Hosting tours recently to allow residents an opportunity to see the deteriorating conditions at City Hall, the committee’s work continues into the new year.
• Starkville’s economy continued to defy expectations during 2010 as local sales tax and restaurant/hotel tax revenues continued to increase throughout the year with only a few bumps in the road.
Though final tax figures for November and December have yet to be released, officials say they believe the 2010 tax collection levels will be significantly higher than those for 2009.
For the first 10 months of 2010, city sales tax collection levels were up by more than $180,000 over the same period for 2009.
• What was once an abandoned downtown lot saw new life this year as the new home to the Starkville Community Market.
Led by Market Manager Dylan Karges, volunteers worked diligently to make the site on the northwest corner of the Jackson Street-Lampkin Street intersection an attractive home for the Market and a community gathering place, including installation of ornamental metal fencing and artwork created by crews from Gulf States Manufacturing and significant landscaping.
Editor’s note: News Editor Paul Sims contributed to this year-end top stories roundup.
News staff members Kelly Daniels, Shea Staskowski and Gwen Sisson also contributed valuable input.