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Learning lessons from three college towns

What do Hattiesburg, Oxford and Starkville have in common?

A. a university

B. a vibrant, revitalized downtown

C. growing, visually polluted commercial/retail strips

D. all of the above

The correct answer is “D” of course.

Each city has a university. Hattiesburg has the University of Southern Mississippi, Oxford has Ole Miss and Starkville has Mississippi State University. Drive to any of the towns and upon approaching the city you will see a welcome sign that reads “Home of (the university).” Although in different variations, each of the three cities is affected and influenced by its university, and to varying degrees is a “college town,” meaning that there is typically a better educated populace, more tolerance for alternative lifestyles and less industrial land uses.

Each city also has a revitalized downtown. Hattiesburg has a significant downtown district being marketed and managed by the Historic Hattiesburg Downtown Association, upscale Oxford has an invigorating downtown area that is one of the most in-demand places in the United States and Starkville’s revitalizing downtown features an eclectic mixed-use area known as the Cotton District and a Main Street with no vacancies.

Each city also has a commercial/retail strip where national franchise stores dominate. The U.S. 98/Hardy Street corridor in Hattiesburg is lined with big box national retailers. In Oxford, there is the rapidly-developing West Jackson Avenue that has no resemblance to the rest of quaint Oxford. In Starkville, there is the Highway 12 retail concentration.

Although each city has a university, the universities themselves have their own personalities and distinctions. If a person familiar with each of the universities was transported blindfolded to the center of any one of them, that person would know almost immediately upon removing the blinding on which university he or she had landed. Likewise, the downtowns of the three cities have their uniqueness, so much so that the same person would know quickly the identity of the downtown. Now transport the blindfolded traveler to the retail strip. Upon removing the blindfold, would the person know whether he or she was in front of the Wal-Mart on Highway 98, Highway 12 or West Jackson Avenue?

The point, of course, is that the retail strips in most towns are not what distinguish communities from one another. It is the downtowns where the uniqueness occurs. So what are the differences between the strip and downtown? The following table serves to illustrate:


Big box Small spaces
Chain stores Independent merchants
Function Charm
Efficiency Folksy
Selection Specialty
Sales taxes Less
Regional market area Larger, but shallower market area
Like everywhere else The real community

The biggest influence on the creation of the strip, and the demise of the former downtown, is the automobile. The strip was built to accommodate customers who want to drive in and park in front of the store, even though the parking place may actually be the equivalent of a block away. Strip centers are very good for people who need or want to buy only one thing, especially if they want to buy a lot of one type of thing. If a shopper needs a 50-pound bag of dog food, a cat collar, a package of dog “treats” and a book on how to raise parakeets, then the pet mega-store meets the need nicely. Or to put it another way, it meets the need efficiently. The strip centers have not only the big stores, they have parking, which is the bane of many downtowns that want to attract retail customers. Successful downtowns have figured out ways to make parking more convenient. Fortunately, for Oxford, Hattiesburg and Starkville there is not a perception that parking downtown is a problem. In each city, there is short-term front door parking at the heart of downtown and longer-term parking just a block or two away.

Successful downtowns also need to let the first contact people (the motel desk clerks, the convenience store clerks, etc.) know about the downtown shopping experience. Otherwise, shoppers in search of that unique experience may find themselves directed elsewhere. Recently, an acquaintance told me she was headed to a conference at one of the above towns. She asked a former resident for a good place to shop. The former resident instructed her to merely ask at the conference registration desk or the motel front desk. When the visitor got there, she did as instructed and was told that the best place to shop was the Wal-mart SuperCenter just down the road.

Marketing researchers have told us that these days consumers want two things — convenience and an experience. Assuming that to be the case, perhaps I should add those words to the list above. If one is heading to Hattiesburg, Oxford or Starkville and wants shopping convenience, go to the strip center; if one prefers an experience, head to the revitalized downtown.


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