What do Starkville and Oxford have in common?
Starkville today reminds me much of Oxford, circa 1995. If you take offense at the suggestion that Starkville is 15 years behind Oxford, swallow your Bulldog pride and take a trip up there. Look around. Go to the Square. Take a drive down West Jackson Avenue. You”ll see a progressive, vibrant community, with well-designed roadways and more commerce and growth than it knows what to do with.
Of course, Starkville is growing, and has its own charm. But you”ll notice a difference.
Here”s what they have in common. Back in 1995, I was a reporter for the Oxford Eagle, and covered the Board of Aldermen. The mayor at the time, John Leslie, had been in office for somewhere just shy of three decades. The board was largely made up of lifelong Oxford residents, most of them Leslie”s age, or older. Only one board member had any ties to the University of Mississippi.
Most reporters who cover small-town city boards will describe the same scene. The board and some department heads are up front. In the audience are the local newspaper reporter and maybe two other people who tend to show up at every meeting. Once in a blue moon, a handful of Boy Scouts angling for merit badges might reluctantly fill the back row. But most of the time, I had my own bench — my own half of the room, for that matter.
Around 1995, things began to change.
The catalyst was a plan to widen West Jackson Avenue, which is Oxford”s version of Starkville”s Highway 12. The road shrank to two tree-lined lanes as it passed in front of Ole Miss. Plans to cut the trees and widen the road became a rallying cry for those who didn”t want to make an ugly road uglier. They wanted an end to anything-goes, roughshod development. They wanted to protect things like trees and sidewalks — to have more of them, not less.
More people started showing up to meetings. At first, just a few. Then, a few more.
At the height of the debate over the road-widening plans, and other controversial issues of the day, I didn”t have my own side of the room anymore. The once-empty courtroom above City Hall was packed. A few people were screaming things from the audience that you wouldn”t want a Boy Scout to hear.
The one or two people who showed up to even the “slow” meetings grew to a dozen or so. In the world of small-town government, that”s a sellout at Davis Wade.
In the end, the mayor decided not to run again. A few of those dozen people who started turning up at the meetings, got voted in. Much of the “old guard” got voted out.
Starkville is at that place now. Mayor Parker Wiseman and Alderman Jeremiah Dumas, and other members of the new board, are working to find a new path for Starkville.
That path includes sidewalks, new rules on trees, “sustainable growth,” “green space,” historic preservation, smoking bans, and things that are causing a lot of eye-rolling and name-calling, now as they did then. Developers and some home and business owners are crying foul, now as then. Of course, Oxford is not perfect — it has its own problems. But all would agree it”s a more livable, attractive and prosperous place now than it was 15 years ago. It serves as an example of a city that came out on the other side a better place.
Starkville is on its way down this bumpy road. But at the end is a bright future, if the community keeps its focus on building a more attractive, livable city.
Steve Mullen is Managing Editor of The Dispatch.
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