STARKVILLE – The fate of the Highlands Plantation resort community outside of Starkville now rests in the hands of the state.
The Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors Monday voted 4-1 to ask the State Tax Commission to revoke the resort status of Highlands Plantation. Only District 2 Supervisor Orlando Trainer voted against the resolution, saying the move would have a negative economic impact on the area and could cause a financial hardship for a popular restaurant and sports bar.
Highlands Plantation, along with Cowbells Sports Grill, is located in Oktibbeha County, where the possession and sale of beer outside Starkville city limits is illegal, but liquor and wine are legal. Cowbells can sell beer and people who live in Highlands Plantation can possess it because of the development”s resort status.
Without resort status, Cowbells would no longer be able to sell beer, and residents of Highlands Plantation would no longer be able to possess it.
Oktibbeha County Sheriff Dolph Bryan has gone before county supervisors three times, most recently on Monday, to ask the board to contact the state about revoking Highlands Plantation”s resort status. After much deliberation, the board finally decided to act on Bryan”s request.
According to Bryan, the resort status has led to binge drinking among Mississippi State University students who live in the community and among patrons of Cowbells. Because Cowbells closes later than bars in Starkville, patrons tend to leave the city and head to Highlands Plantation for more alcohol. The practice lends itself to drunk driving, Bryan said.
“The whole thrust of what I”m trying to do is stop someone from dying,” Bryan said.
Still, Bryan admitted not all of the problems at Highlands Plantation have come from Cowbells. Much of the drinking takes place at house parties, he said.
“The problem is I can”t stop the parties,” Bryan said. “The problem isn”t Cowbells. The problem is with the parties. Cowbells is just the straw that broke the camel”s back.”
Bryan also said the circumstances surrounding the development”s resort status have changed. The golf course in Highlands Plantation has been closed since December, so there is “no need” for the development to remain a resort, Bryan said.
District 1 Supervisor Carl Clardy sided with Bryan.
“I put the safety of our county first,” Clardy said. “Let (Highlands Plantation) fight it out with the state.”
On the other side of the issue, Trainer said he supports Bryan and his efforts to keep the county safe, but warned of the repercussions.
“If that resort status is revoked, you”ll put Cowbells out of business,” Trainer said. “That”s 50 employees who are going to be out of a job. In economic times like these, I don”t think we should be putting people out of business.”
Revoking the resort status would not give the county a pro-business image, Trainer said, and could scare off developers looking at land for building sites. A buyer already is looking at purchasing the golf course in Highlands Plantation, but the deal could fall through if beer is not allowed in the development, he warned.
“I think if we do this, we”re sending a message that we”re anti-development,” Trainer said.
Additionally, Highlands Plantation provides the county with more than $1 million in tax revenue each year, with more than half of the money going toward county schools, Trainer said.
“If this resolution passes, citizens need to get ready for a tax increase,” Trainer said.
Several representatives of Highlands Plantation and Cowbells were at the board meeting Monday, but were not allowed to speak.
After the meeting, Jay Bradley, who serves as president of the Highlands Plantation Homeowner”s Association, was frustrated by the board”s decision.
“Now you”re going to have 2,000 kids out on the road instead of inside Cowbells,” Bradley said in response to Bryan”s argument about drunk driving.
As for the development”s next course of action, Bradley said, “I guess we”ll just have to wait on the state.”