OPINION: Dreaming big in Starkvegas

A block party was held Monday night in downtown Starkville to commemorate the swearing in of city officials (Photo by Ryan Phillips, SDN)

I had a friend who will go unnamed pull me aside to chat following yesterday’s swearing-in ceremony at City Hall because of my reputation as a mouthy economic development nerd.

We talked about some of the high points discussed during Mayor Lynn Spruill’s inaugural address and both of us kept agreeing with the issues mentioned in the speech.

My friend echoed many of Spruill’s talking points, but after referencing several other innovative local economies around the state and how Starkville could benefit from taking notes, they said directly: “If we want to grow, we got to dream.”

I couldn’t agree more. But what sets Starkville apart as a small southern college town is our inclusivity, diversity and willingness to try new things. The Cotton District
is a prime example of a dream coming to fruition and providing a unique outlet for people of all walks of life.

You don’t have to be a college student with daddy’s credit card to enjoy the crawfish festival or Sunday Funday - and those are just a couple of the community events geared toward getting a wide range of people to walk the streets. The creative foundation laid by previous city leaders is there, now it’s Spruill turn to build upon it.

After hearing Spruill’s speech on Monday, I couldn’t help but think that will be the direction taken in the new administration.

I could be wrong, but to see the optimism shown by Spruill and people in the community, the possibilities are difficult to ignore.

The talking points that spoke the most to me during her inaugural address included putting a renewed emphasis on business in downtown Starkville and putting a focus on infrastructure - apart from just overlaying roads and streets.

Anyone who has paid attention to my rants knows how I view our neglected downtown. We have had a revolving-door ecosystem in the Main Street area consisting mostly of ill-fated sweet shops and boutiques - none of which drive foot traffic in the area and even fewer of which attract a diverse demographic of customers.

Each store is supported by a specific clique and that needs to change if downtown is going to prosper.

If Spruill claims she wants to see a bustling downtown, I do hope she will address the glut of these businesses and focus on creating a vibrant and walkable downtown that has more to offer than over-priced clothes and law offices. It’s not about the wants of the few, but the needs of the many.

People need options and a touch of creativity in attracting businesses downtown could bring about a tidal shift in the usefulness of Main Street. Now that Scott Maynard has taken the helm of the Greater Starkville Development Partnership, it can only be assumed he will use his proven economic development expertise to work with City Hall and help remedy the high storefront turnover and economic stagnation downtown.

While the proposed industrial park is an issue that keeps popping up in the minds of many in the city, it has pulled much-needed attention away from a downtown that is far from appealing.

As much as I respect the efforts of Joe Max Higgins and the amazing people at the Golden Triangle Development LINK, we need our local officials to step up at the municipal level and develop a unique and attractive business climate downtown. It’s time to stop passing the buck … and more importantly, spending the buck to let someone else do the job.

With a major SEC university in our backyard, more incubator businesses could also provide the remedy to development woes downtown, by keeping local entrepreneurs in Starkville and fostering a climate of competition … and no, competition between downtown boutiques does not qualify as an economic driver. We need to create an attractive environment for locally-owned businesses thirsty to operate in the black, not content with floundering in the red.

Downtown events will also benefit greatly from increased daily foot traffic, and attracting another coffee shop, book store or family restaurant could do just that … not to mention another place to enjoy libations. If you bring people downtown for events, and have attractive storefronts to keep them spending their money once the event winds down, then everyone wins.

Venues were also a point of focus for Spruill’s address, and I applaud her for pointing out the city’s need for a high-end, tournament-ready sports facility. The Sportsplex is a great piece of the puzzle in raising Starkville’s profile, but with RVs packed side by side and overflow parking extending to the curb of Lynn Lane when small tournaments are played, it simply can’t support a major youth sporting event that attracts thousands. The road gets congested once the tournaments are over, and when people leave, there is little for them to spend their money on that isn’t along the Mad Max landscape of Highway 12.

The possibility of an amphitheater was also touched upon, which is a good idea in theory but one that should be treated with caution. I have seen similar plans play out in other communities and if handled properly, a community amphitheater can represent a huge boon for a local arts community.

But if treated as a boondoggle and appeasement to those wanting something more, a community amphitheater can become a money pit venture that only serves to burn up taxpayer dollars like bacon fat, leaving only the greasy leftovers of something promising. Many people in small town America want high-paying jobs and streets that won’t destroy their American-made vehicles. Shakespeare in the park typically isn’t on the radar of Joe Six-Pack, but in a diverse college town like Starkville, which has already seen a boom in support for the Starkville Community Theatre, I believe it warrants a shot.

If Spruill is true to her word, Joe Six-Pack will have his roads paved and Joe Thespian will have a local arts culture supported by the city’s highest office.

I acknowledge that any politician elected will be quick to make promises - many of which may not come true. But Spruill’s career has shown she aims high and is not one to shy away from a challenge or let a setback dictate how she will operate. She is tough, fair and listens.

I just hope the other half of people in Starkville who did not vote for her will do the same during the upcoming term.

Ryan Phillips is the editor of the Starkville Daily News. The views reflected in this column are his and do not reflect the views and opinions of the Starkville Daily News staff.