County sees tourism boost

During the recent fiscal year, Starkville posted a more than 9 percent increase in tourism spending over the previous period, an official said Wednesday citing preliminary figures.
The Mississippi Tourism Association – an agency affiliated with the Mississippi Development Authority – which issues an annual statistical report in February, released the preliminary numbers, said Jennifer Gregory, vice president of tourism development with the Greater Starkville Development Partnership.
These early figures show people spent an estimated $65.2 million in Oktibbeha County in the most recent period.
This spending is up more than 9 percent from the previous fiscal year’s number of $59.8 million.
Gregory says part of the local increase includes construction of a new hotel, the Hilton Garden Inn.
Officials attribute a large part of the rise in spending locally to the excitement and surge in interest in Mississippi State University athletics, primarily football, she said.
“Anytime you have an additional” 10,000 to 15,000 people in the community for an event, they are bound to spend money at restaurants, hotels and local stores, which all inevitably boost these figures,” Gregory said.
This is evident in the Cotton District Arts Festival, one of the community’s premier events, she said. When it was paired with Super Bulldog Weekend, “they saw double the amount of festival-goers then they had the previous year,” she said.
Officials don’t want to forget “all the other fantastic attractions” in the community, including the Mississippi Horse Park, the Noxubee Wildlife Refuge, along with museums and galleries.
These attractions bring visitors to Starkville themselves, but officials can’t deny the impact of the approach by MSU Football Coach Dan Mullen and Scott Stricklin, the university’s athletic director, to enhance the visitor’s experience at an MSU athletic event has had on the community’s economy, Gregory said.
Plus, spending increases like this “are what places our community at
the perfect spot” to improve “quality of life, aesthetics and general livability in Starkville for all these repeat visitors,” she said.
Ideally, these people could relocate or retire to the community, purchase second homes and really invest in Starkville, she said.
This is why it was such a good time for Starkville to become a Main Street community, she said, “because it really encourages local officials – and us at the Partnership – to focus on policy, restoration and promotions in our core business district, which is downtown Starkville.”
Gregory said: “Lots of people are coming and they are spending, so it would be wise of us to focus heavily now on the experience these visitors will have in our community.”
Gregory detailed a planned next step with which is a possible design workshop “to help us see what our potential is and gain concrete resources ... we can use to better the appearance, walkability, cleanliness and overall experience our visitors have when they visit Starkville.”
Following the workshop, officials plan to take action on some of the recommendations which will immediately enhance “what our visitors see and how they feel when they are in our community,” she said.
Officials anticipate some of the recommendations will be:
• A marketing and branding campaign.
• Increased way-finding signs around the downtown area.
• A better physical connection between the city and MSU in such ways as consistent signs and banners, landscaping and similar improvements.
• Policy recommendations which will encourage the City of Starkville to start planning now for smart growth throughout the city.
Starkville and MSU are “positioned for great things right now because of the collaboration” between the City of Starkville, Oktibbeha County, the GSDP and MSU, Gregory said.
“If that collaboration continues, in my opinion,” the possibilities “are endless for what what the community can become,” she said.