STARKVILLE –The summer months typically mean slow numbers for retailers in Starkville.
Students are gone for the summer, and retailers and restaurant owners can’t rely on football games for expected revenue. Restaurants and bars usually have smaller staffs in the summer, too.
But a weekend of college baseball — and 20,000 fans — can provide an unexpected boost in the year’s slowest retail season.
How much? About $2 million, said Greater Starkville Development Partnership CEO Jennifer Gregory.
The Mississippi State University baseball team is hosting an NCAA Regional for the first time in 10 years. The University of Central Arkansas, Mercer University, and the University of South Alabama joined MSU in the tournament, which began Friday and continues today and runs through Monday, if necessary.
That’s great news for businesses in Starkville, as MSU fans typically turn out in droves for baseball games. The Bulldogs own the top 10 home attendance records in NCAA history. And with UCA, USA, and Mercer within regional driving distance, the expectation for packed hotels, bars, and gift shops was high heading into the weekend.
How high? It was so high Restaurant Tyler General Manager Joseph Ellis could only offer a brief statement in lieu of an early rush Saturday.
“We’re going to see an increase because there are so many more people,” he said. “It’s that simple.”
Gregory said the restaurant owners she has worked with this week have said they’re staffing plans have doubled in anticipation of the regional. The Partnership placed a welcome banner on Main Street and planted new flowers downtown. It also encouraged Main Street vendors to adjust their hours for the weekend. Typically, vendors will open later and close earlier, Gregory said.
“In addition to that, there are sales everywhere downtown,” Gregory said. “Our restaurants and hotels do well with summer camps, but when there are opportunities to be maxed out, with maroon and white items flying off the shelves, it’s great during a slow time that comes in the summer.”
Strangely, though, the scene in the Cotton District –Starkville’s premier area for nightlife –at 1 p.m. Friday didn’t reflect the anticipation of a crowded atmosphere. Bin 612 was open, but bars like Ptolemy’s and Halfway House were closed. The latter had a sign on its door alerting customers that it would be closed all weekend. As a result, Bin 612 was packed by 3 p.m. Buffalo Wild Wings was slammed all day and expecting a full day of traffic Saturday, said assistant manager Brian Hawkins.
Hotels, as expected, were booked to capacity before the weekend. It wasn’t only in Starkville. Gregory said hotel managers in Columbus and West Point said their rooms were full, too. For MSU to submit a host proposal to the NCAA, it had to ensure it had enough 25-room blocks at hotels to accommodate team personnel from the other schools, Gregory said. And with Boys’ State and a 4-H conference at MSU in the last week, hotel managers worked diligently to reserve the rooms, Gregory said.
Being booked to capacity for big athletics weekends isn’t anything new. Reserving a room for a weekend for a MSU home football game must be done more than a year in advance in Starkville. And while new hotels are being built in Columbus, like the Courtyard by Marriott, the La Quinta Inn and Hilton Garden Inn are the only two hotels built in Starkville in the last 12 years. While MSU’s enrollment continues to boom and its athletic teams continue to churn out winning seasons and sold-out stadiums, the hotel market in the city isn’t growing at the same pace.
Gregory said there are talks for as many as four hotels to be built in the near future.
“I don’t think I’d say all four are breaking ground soon, but there are talks of at least two, potentially four,” Gregory said. “I think we’ll see that continue to happen if we can support it.
“When we bring in consultants on a Tuesday or Wednesday night, they have trouble finding a hotel. The university, with orientations, camps, are staying full. I think there’s a demand.”
Hilton Garden Inn General Manager John Jackovic said the alliance with MSU is the key to hotels keeping business, but he says the development in Columbus will offset any demand in Starkville.
“You have industries like Garan, Weavexx , and Flexsteel, but unless we see some real expansion in our manufacturing outlets here, it’s really not a distinct opportunity for a tremendous amount of growth in the hotel market,” he said. “I’ve heard of possibly a 115-room and another 90-room being built here, but I don’t see the feasibility of that. Starkville just isn’t the stopover city that could demand that.
“If you’re depending on six or seven weekends in the fall to support that, you’re going to struggle.”
Football weekends, which usually help bring an extra $6-7 million to the city, are guaranteed each year. Hosting a regional isn’t, despite MSU’s rich baseball history. Still, the weekend gives the city a chance to showcase its boom of downtown vendors. Plus, the $2 million dollars in spending will help business and sales tax revenue for the city.
“The best part is it’s being spent by people outside of our community,” Gregory said. “It’s new money and a great opportunity for our businesses.”