This is for all my friends who think Starkville, Ms., can’t stand up to the aura of Old South affluence exhibited in…say that hoity toity town of Oxford. I’m sick of the perception that Starkville is somehow inferior and I’m not going to take it anymore!
Now, mind you I’m still a Rebel fan, and cherish the memories of living there during my college days, but Stark Vegas as I like to refer to it, has its own unique charm. I wouldn’t live anywhere else on the planet. No where are people friendlier and more devoted to our Mississippi State Bulldawgs – even during the lean years which I hope we are putting behind us.
“Tumbleweeds of trash rolling down Main Street have been replaced with neon lights and restaurants highlighted in Southern Living magazine – symbolic of this small town’s development into an authentic college town.
A decade ago, locals joked that someone could hit a golf ball down Main Street after 5 p.m. and not hit a car. Home to Mississippi State, the town of about 26,000 residents wasn’t what many expected from a university community. The latest population figures indicate we have raced right past nearby Columbus which has traditional been the larger city.
Not so long ago, Starkville had four bars for college students and a strained town-gown relationship.
Starkville was suffering from a problem of perception versus reality, voted in some surveys in the 1990s as the worst college town in the Southeastern Conference.
Visitors now, though, might wonder what happened to that town. It’s the same place, but much has changed in culture and attitude.
In a decade or so, the community has developed into one of the more progressive communities in Mississippi, leading community initiatives such as free curbside recycling and being the first city in the state to ban public smoking.
About five years ago, a group called Starkville in Motion was created to advocate for more sidewalks and bike paths in the city, leading to the city’s first bike paths.
A few months ago, the city requested permission from the state to sell alcohol on Sundays, something considered symbolic of the changing of the guard for the city in northeastern Mississippi.
Even Starkville’s mayor appears to represent youth and vigor for the community. Until Parker Wiseman, a Starkville native, was elected this year, the list of previous mayors looked like an AARP convention.
Wiseman, 29, an attorney with a master’s degree in public administration, blends campus and city interests together. He served as student government president from 2002-03.
"The fact that younger, more progressive citizens in this community have taken an active role makes it possible for somebody like me to get elected," Wiseman said. "The culture of our city has evolved quite a bit over the last decade."
Some might say culture and nightlife, particularly downtown, have turned from desolation to a destination.
Chef Ty Thames operates two restaurants downtown – Restaurant Tyler and Barrister’s Bar and Grill – and says a marked difference has taken place in the five years he has lived in the city after spending time in Italy and Washington, D.C.
He serves dishes specializing in Mississippi flavor, such as Vardaman sweet potato gnocchi.
"I came back to Mississippi to showcase my talents with foods I grew up with," said Thames, whose restaurants were featured in Southern Living magazine. "Starkville has turned into a good place to do it."
Another sign of life in the city has been the emergence of community festivals.
This past weekend, the community celebrated the third-annual Johnny Cash Flower Pickin’ Festival, recognizing the city’s quirky history with the Man in Black.
Cash was arrested in Starkville in 1965 for public drunkenness. He wrote a song called "Starkville City Jail," claiming he was arrested for picking flowers.
To help accommodate the increased number of events now landing in Starkville, the city recently opened a new Hilton Garden Inn along the Highway 82 bypass, a corridor of anticipated growth around the city.
The addition of more than 100 hotel rooms will help address one of the more frequent concerns voiced in the past by visitors – a lack of accommodations.
Between Main Street and MSU’s campus, the Cotton District is another unique piece of Starkville’s personality.
Narrow streets and dense living with the occasional statue mounted on buildings, the Cotton District hosts such annual events as the Cotton District Arts Festival and Bulldog Bash – one of the largest outdoor arts events in the state and one of the largest free outdoor annual concerts, respectively.
I couldn’t have said it better myself Robbie.