Mississippi State University’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Clinic was the top charity vote getter in this year’s Starkville Restaurant Week and won a $5,000 cash donation Tuesday.
The group, which receives no funding from the university, earned more than half of this year’s total ballot count and beat out the first runner up, Starkville Habitat for Humanity, by about 2,500 votes.
Habitat won the Gold Plate award and a $1,000 prize, while the Salvation Army was awarded third place’s Silver Spoon and a $500 donation.
Dan Gadke, the clinic’s director, said a portion of the prize money will ensure his organization continues to offer services through the summer, while another chunk will help offset costs for families that cannot afford help.
“I can’t show enough appreciation for everyone — the community, the university and the students,” he said. “It’s great to know what kind of support is out there. We started off as a small idea last year with a few kids that needed help, and here we are. It’s just crazy. It’s going to be nice to have enough breathing room so we can focus on providing services.”
The ADDC operates under MSU’s School Psychological Services Center and serves about 70 clients each week with assessment — autism spectrum disorder diagnoses — and intervention services in areas including pre-academics, social skills and disruptive behaviors.
It receives funding through patient fees, assessed on a $1-$25 sliding scale, and donations.
Total votes down, impact still felt
Although the Partnership extended this year’s event to 10 days, SRW failed to reach 2014’s record number of ballots cast.
Last year, the event yielded 16,228 certified charity votes in seven days. Organizers certified 12,356 ballots this year.
2013’s record-setting mark was attributed to MSU’s important home baseball series against the University of Vanderbilt, an event that drew large crowds from across the Southeast.
Since MSU’s baseball team played the University of Kentucky on the road last weekend, organizers extended the front end of the event to fall in line with State’s previous home series against the University of Alabama.
Still, this year’s event yielded 4,000 fewer votes even with three additional days.
Issues with participating restaurants emerged as SRW progressed. Many patrons told Partnership officials they simply were not provided ballots by many restaurants’ servers.
In preparation for each year’s event, Partnership staff members offer training sessions with participating restaurants. Those instructions ask waiters and waitresses to provide ballots to customers with their bill or when they order, depending on the restaurant’s method of delivery and payment.
Fewer participating restaurants asked for the training sessions this year, said Jennifer Prather, the Partnership’s special events coordinator.
The Dispatch observed many businesses that left stacks of ballots out in the open, circumventing wait staff’s ability to inform diners about SRW’s charity aspects and the personal delivery of ballots upon receipt of food or payment.
Many voters did not participate because they simply did not know to do so.
Despite these issues, GSDP CEO Jennifer Gregory said this year’s event still outpaced similar efforts held in Jackson.
“With over 12,000 ballots returned, (SRW) remains the largest restaurant week in the state, which is a true testament to the strength and diversity of our restaurant community,” she said. “As with most of our promotions at the Partnership, this event aims to drive spending in our community. We saw a substantial economic impact from the previous two (events), and we’re hoping for another significant March. As usual, we have high hopes that this promotion will benefit our local businesses and the community as a whole.”
SRW was launched in 2013 as a way to bring Mississippi residents who live within a 60-mile radius — about an hour’s drive — to promote Starkville’s growing culinary scene the week after MSU’s spring break, a stretch of time that historically produces sluggish dining and retail sales figures.
The charity aspect allows organizers to estimate how many diners visit participating restaurants by counting votes.
The Partnership also tracks its advertising effectiveness through ballot entries for zip codes — where customers came from — and builds its database with provided email addresses.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch