Starkville attorney Charles Bruce Brown’s first challenge to the city’s planned Streatery, an outdoor seating and dining space that will temporarily occupy nine Main Street parking spaces, did not succeed at the board of aldermen’s July 7 meeting.
Brown introduced a new challenge Wednesday with a notice of appeal in Oktibbeha County Circuit Court, claiming again that the Streatery would only benefit a select few downtown restaurants — including one partly owned by a city employee — and therefore violate the state law prohibiting the use of a public space for a private citizen, business or industry.
“It’s just like how a police officer can’t use his police car to go on vacation to Florida,” Brown told The Dispatch.
His law office sits behind the planned Streatery location on the south side of the street, and he and 30 other citizens with businesses and offices on Main Street have signed a petition against the Streatery. He gave the petition to the board of aldermen, Mayor Lynn Spruill and City Attorney Chris Latimer on July 7 prior to the board’s vote approving the project.
Spruill and Latimer have said the project will simply repurpose a public space for another public use and is meant to benefit all Main Street businesses, not just the ones right in front of it — Restaurant Tyler, 929 Coffee Bar and Moe’s Original BBQ. Spruill said the city hopes the Streatery will revitalize the downtown area, since the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced business and social activity.
Spruill mentioned in an interview Thursday that other Mississippi cities, including Jackson, have implemented similar projects.
“For it to meet such resistance (here) is amazing to me, and certainly for there to be some conspiracy theory about it benefiting one particular individual is an absurdity,” Spruill said.
The project will not use any direct city funds. The nearby restaurants will provide patio furniture, the city will provide its own planters and benches, and the Starkville Main Street Association (which is partially funded by city sales tax collections) will provide plants, all as in-kind donations. The seating will be placed six feet apart in keeping with social distancing protocols.
The Streatery will also include a painted design on the street, umbrellas and strings of lights hanging over the tables, cinder block barriers between the tables and the Main Street traffic, and ramps so wheelchair users can access the area. The Carl Small Town Center in Mississippi State University’s College of Architecture will spend $2,390 on the project.
Brown cited Article 4, Section 66 of the Mississippi Constitution and Title 21, Chapter 17, Section 5 of state law in an interview with The Dispatch. Both documents prevent “any donation” from a government body for private use.
The Streatery would provide extra seating to Restaurant Tyler than to Moe’s or 929, Brown said, and municipal court judge Brian Kelley is one of the restaurant’s owners, so the project would directly benefit a city employee.
Kelley did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
Spruill said there is nothing improper about the Streatery, which is meant to be temporary anyway, since patrons of any local business or anyone who happens to be downtown can use the Streatery. Those who oppose the Streatery “aren’t taking into account the vibrancy of downtown,” she said, and she also noted that most of the signatories of the petition run law offices and department stores.
“By all rights, if they were the only ones downtown, our downtown would be shut down at 5 o’clock,” she said. “That’s not a vibrant downtown. That doesn’t insure the long-term benefit of our community.”
Spruill said the Streatery does no harm to the community, but Brown disagrees, saying people who do not show symptoms of COVID-19 could unknowingly spread the illness there, especially since the ordinance for the project does not specify who will clean the tables.
“If you’ve got COVID and you don’t know it and you sit at those tables in 95-degree weather, you’re going to sweat and you’re going to leave that virus there,” he said. “If you’re eating, you’re certainly not going to wear a mask, and you might spill your drink or your food. Who’s going to sanitize those tables?”
Spruill called Brown’s appeal a “delaying tactic” that she hopes is resolved quickly.
“I have every intention of presuming that we will move forward expeditiously to get this handled so we can move along with what is a very good idea in order to help our downtown,” Spruill said.
Starkville attorney Charles Yoste, whose office is also on Main Street and who signed the petition, is representing Brown in his appeal.
Tess Vrbin was previously a reporter for The Dispatch.