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Convention Center in the works for Starkville

STARKVILLE – Sometimes it seems like it takes forever before good ideas for economic development get translated into real, on-the-ground progress. It can take years to line up financing, permits and contracts to make a project happen.

Right now in Starkville, a number of new ideas are just coming out of the starting gate including plans for a convention center on a site at Mississippi State University (MSU). At the same time, quite a few other projects are coming to fruition this year.

“This will be a very significant year for Starkville because several major projects are coming to completion,” said David Thornell, president and CEO of the Greater Starkville Development Partnership. “The first that comes to mind is our $130-million highway improvements program that includes two new bypasses that will open in the fall. That is State Highway 25 on the west side of town and U.S. 82 on the north side of town.”

The new roads will completely change how people move around, into and out of Starkville. The new corridors also open up a large amount of land for new commercial development.

“We already see commercial development following these projects,” Thornell said. “A portion of Highway 25 opened in the fall of 2003, and we have already seen activity along that five-mile section including construction underway on a local car dealership relocating and expanding there. We also have 45 acres that have been optioned to Ergon Properties in Jackson, which has intentions to develop it as a mixed-use retail, commercial center. We expect there is going to be a real retail boom out there. It is going to take place as soon as the roads open for new retail and commercial projects.”

The Oktibbeha County Economic Development Administration (OCEDA) owns 200 acres on Mississippi 25 that is being developed as the Cornerstone Industrial Park. Bids have been accepted for the infrastructure for the park that will house light manufacturing, assembly and distributions operations. A portion of the upscale business park is expected to open later this year.

MSU has a significant impact on growing the local economy. OCEDA`s Research and Technology Park located across from the university on U.S. 82 was the state`s first research park. It houses such significant enterprises as the Center for Advanced Vehicular Systems (CAVS), which opened last year to aid manufacturers and suppliers, including Nissan, in the state`s emerging auto industry. A new 25,000-square-foot technology business incubator will open in May. And a 44,000-square-foot expansion of the Engineering and Research Center is currently underway.

There is now only one vacant lot at the Research and Technology Park, and one company is eyeing that. Hence, plans are being made to expand the park on adjoining land owned by the university.

The university has partnered with the City of Starkville to hire a nationally recognized consulting firm to draw up a master plan for expansion of the Research and Technology Park. The firm, Hammer, Siler, George Associates of Maryland, was involved in helping plan the highly successful North Carolina Research Triangle.

“The scope of their work is to develop a comprehensive plan for the phase-two expansion of the research park,” said Dr. Melvin Ray, special assistant to the president of MSU. “We are looking at developing 56 acres adjoining the park. We expect that study to be completed in late April or early May. Activity in the park is primarily generated by our research capability here at the university. Our science and engineering activities have been ranked 57th in the country among public universities with expenditures in the range of $148 million in 2001.”

Ray said spinoff technologies out of the research lab generate new high-tech companies. New companies are attracted to the area because they want to be close to MSU scientists and graduates, who are prime labor force candidates for high-tech companies – particularly in the areas of science, engineering and technology.

“A prime example of that is the Viking Range Research and Design Center, which will be located in the research park,” Ray said. “A primary draw for them was having access to our graduates every year. The company also has access to our research faculty to work with collaboratively to improve their products. The same is true for CAVS. The research park is basically an asset for the community and the region. The more jobs created in the research park, the better off the entire region will be.”

Another interesting trial project in Starkville is one initiated by the student association at MSU. The association initiated and has helped coordinate a trial expanded shuttle system. The students engaged the local business community to help fund shuttle routes on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights running between the campus and the downtown and other commercial centers. The shuttles, helpful for both students and local businesses that appreciate their business, will run through the end of semester.

“We are collecting data to determine the feasibility of expanding the system,” Ray said. “And we are also looking into the prospect of applying for a federal transit grant. We would also look at routes to connect to the hospitals, other medical complexes and major apartment complexes. I think it would be something the university and community would work on together to determine the best route to satisfy the needs of the local community and the student population.”

There is also a great deal of enthusiasm around efforts to redevelop the historic Cooley Buildingussell Street property that contains 17 acres of land into “a destination place.” MSU has put out request for proposals (RFP) to develop the building property located on the western front door of the campus into a conference center, hotel, retail and commercial area.

“We have developers from Mississippi and all the surrounding states who have expressed interest,” Ray said. “We’re very excited about the prospects of developers coming in and creating what we are calling a destination place for Starkville and MSU. Our priority for that location would be something that would address the needs of students, faculty and the local community. We need conference center space. We would also be pleased to see some boutiques, restaurants and other commercial venues.”

The idea is to have a facility to host conferences and professional meetings, and create a closer bond with the City of Starkville. Ray said the university is in a good position because it isn`t in the position of having to accept a bid.

“We will only accept a proposal that addresses the needs we put forth in that RFP, something that will be an asset for this university and the community,” Ray said.

Thornell said that a convention center in Starkville is something that has been talked about and wanted for 20-plus years. “Finally this year we will see there is a near-term answer for that need,” he said.

There has also been significant progress recently improving downtown Starkville. Mayor Mack Rutledge said the city is getting close to completion of a downtown rejuvenation project. Sidewalks have been made more handicapped accessible and pedestrian friendly, landscaping has been improved, the overhead electrical and telephone wires have been buried, Main Street has been overlaid and striped and a number of businesses have improved their buildings.

Rutledge said now there are complaints about parking availability, which he finds “bitter-sweet.” It is sweet because the downtown is becoming more active, and bitter because solutions need to be found to the problem.

“We hope to alleviate traffic congestion some as the county moves its court facilities farther down the street,” Rutledge said. “It will open up more parking spaces on Main Street. The supervisors purchased a former electric warehouse for the purpose of creating an additional courtroom and offices, and that will take some of the court traffic out of the center of downtown.”

The city also plans to move its Municipal Justice Center that is currently housed in City Hall to a new facilit
on the Highway 25 bypass on the west side of town that will be constructed at an estimated cost of $5 million.

Starkville`s economic climate is stable and encouraging, Rutledge said.

“We had flat sales for a while, but have seen some gains in recent months,” he said. “And we anticipate a very strong new retail development in the next few months. We know there are several big retailers who are looking at us. We believe we will see some national chain retailers, and a significant gain in retail.”

Rutledge also said the city is working hard to renew a 2% food and beverage tax that brought in $900,000 last year for economic development, tourism and recreation. Local and private legislation is being promoted in Jackson to extend the tax that otherwise would sunset in 2005.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

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