By STEVEN NALLEY
Approximately 400 unique guests posted more than 2,100 tweets Monday in Starkville’s first Twitter town hall, a program put on by the Starkville Convention and Visitors Bureau to gather feedback and suggestions for current and future efforts to make Starkville more livable for residents and attractive to visitors.
The numbers come from Jennifer Gregory, vice president for tourism development with the Greater Starkville Development Partnership. On Tuesday, Gregory reported nearly 1,500 tweets came from about 375 guests, but on Wednesday morning, she amended those figures in a tweet posted to the CVB's @mscollegetown account. She said the new figure includes some tweets under the #Starkville2012 hashtag posted yesterday, after the event had officially concluded. She said the low original figures resulted from Twitter's transcript services, which are limited to 1500 tweets.
Gregory said the comment thread featured a broad spectrum of students, business owners, local residents and Mississippi State University fans.
“We were really pleased with the diversity in the participants that we had,” Gregory said. “I think it went remarkably well. I was blown away at the positivity that was conveyed throughout the evening. Many people had specific suggestions or questions. Almost everyone seemed to be participating for the greater good of this community.”
Gregory said the CVB plans to hold more Twitter town halls on individual topics broached at the first, but the exact date has yet to be determined. The events are likely to occur quarterly, she said.
“We’d like to continue the excitement and the buzz that was generated last night,” Gregory said, “but we don’t want to host these too frequently (and) become ineffective.”
Gregory said CVB staff are still compiling a report on the event’s key themes, but they have already determined retail to be one of them.
“A desire for affordable local shopping was resounding,” Gregory said. “Many participants said that they want to shop locally but they need a better variety and better affordability to be able to do that. It was perfect timing because additionally many local retailers participated as well so they were able to converse directly with the shoppers.”
Several commenters, including Cullom McCormick, said they are interested in bringing more national retailers to Starkville.
“A mall would bring awesome commerce to Starkville,” McCormick said. “More jobs, people and money — we would expand in all the right ways.”
Others supported growth of local businesses, including Rachel McGaha.
“Before trying to bring in new businesses,” McGaha said, “we should be supporting the small, local ones we already have.”
Courtney Allen, among others, said she had a specific issue with buying local.
“Some local boutiques and other stores are too expensive for some college students,” Allen said. “Target is a lot cheaper.”
Rhett Hobart, MSU Student Association president, asked about a possible solution to the expense issue Allen raised.
“Students, would you be more likely to shop locally... (in Starkville if local businesses) offered discounts specifically for you?” Hobart asked. Later in the evening, Hobart said this suggestion generated more than 15 responses.
Gregory said transportation was another key topic, and she was glad Ward 3 Alderman Eric Parker and Ward 5 Alderman Jeremiah Dumas were on hand to discuss the city’s recent application for a grant which would fund the Starkville/MSU Area Rapid Transit system’s three shuttle routes.
“Connectivity between downtown and campus is vital,” Gregory said. “Many of the recommendations from the charrette we had were brought up in the form of suggestions in the town hall. To me, that really validated that the Starkville partnership and the city of Starkville are in tune with what the citizens want. That’s not to say we didn’t get wonderful (new) suggestions we plan to implement.”
Several commenters suggested ways to enable pedestrians and bicyclists to travel freely between MSU and downtown Starkville. In his suggestion, Robin Fant alluded to the city’s grant application to fund the Grand Bullyvard project, which would line 1.2 miles of Highway 12 from Spring Street to Highway 182 with sidewalks to increase campus-city access.
“I thought the long term plan of making Russell street a boulevard was a great idea,” Fant said.
Matt Tyler said the city should consider another walkability project to link two commercial districts on opposite sides of Russell Street.
“A crosswalk over Russell Street would link Cotton Crossing/Buffalo Wild Wings to the Cotton District,” Tyler said.
Not every transportation idea dealt with pedestrian and bicyclist access. Halston Hales said he believes several traffic lights in town could be programmed better.
“(The lights on) Spring Street and Highway 12 ... could be so much more responsive,” Hales said.
Kim Theis was one of several who said Blackjack Road also needed maintenance.
“The pot holes grow every day, it seems,” Theis said.
Wheeler Richardson said commenters needed to keep Starkville’s budget in mind when making requests for such municipal projects.
“People think Starkville has this endless amount of money at its disposal,” Richardson said. “Let’s think realistically.”
Some commenters posted budget solutions, including John Gaskin, who said consolidation could help.
“(The city of) Starkville and Oktibbeha (County) should be merged,” Gaskin said. “(There is) no sense in having double (administrative) costs (in) this day and age. County residents use city roads and pay no tax (toward) them, (whereas) city residents pay for county roads they’ll never use.”
Several commenters said they wanted more options for live entertainment, but Thomas Fitzner said Starkville’s entertainment audiences would need to make the first move.
“Starkville needs to realize that if we want to grow our music scene, we have to attend smaller acts to build our name,” Fitzner said.
Marty Carpenter said Starkville’s permanent residents and MSU students are divided on the question of Starkville’s identity.
“The biggest problem is students want a college town and the city (wants) to be known as a retirement town,” Carpenter said.
In the final minutes of the Twitter town hall, several commenters gave positive feedback. One of them was Abby Hunt, who suggested Tupelo leaders conduct a Twitter Town Hall of their own with a #Tupelo2012 hashtag.
“I love all these #Starkville2012 ideas,” Hunt said. “Why can’t Tupelo be this progressive?”
Other late comments expressed hope for the city as a whole, including a few comments from Jake Ellis.
“(I) never knew the Starkville of the ’90s, but cousins have told me Starkville of 2012 isn’t the same place at all,” Ellis said, “and knowing that the Starkville of 2012 is much improved, I look forward to telling my kids one day (Starkville) of 20XX is too.”