Starkville, Mississippi: Growing Main Street and Beyond

Starkville, Mississippi

Events and downtowns go hand in hand. Many of the country’s greatest downtown revitalizations have been led by the Main Street movement, a program created in 1977 by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The premise is simple, with a four-point approach: organization, promotion, design, and economic restructuring. Those new economies are intended to help fuel and fund preservation of historic assets while returning vibrancy to the community.

With more than 1,600 Main Street communities across the country, there are so many stories of how strategic events can be used to stimulate stagnant economies. Many times, events in a downtown are simply thrown to activate the space. Community members put together a festival, and the next thing you know, the businesses close for the event because “those people aren’t my customer.” Yet there is one southern community that has been redefining strategic events: Starkville, Mississippi.

In March 2011, we helped develop a brand for Starkville. At the time, they felt a bit like the state’s red-headed stepchild. Although they were home of Mississippi State University, and one of the larger cities in the state, they constantly felt overshadowed by Oxford, home of Ole Miss. We decided that the time to be bold was now. They launched a new tagline that served as a true rallying cry across the state: We are Starkville, Mississippi’s College Town.

Everything they did was to maximize the economic impact of the University. They engaged Head Football Coach Dan Mullen to help launch a new celebration focused on home games, and called it “New South Weekends.” But there was a challenge: hotels in the Starkville required a two-night stay on home weekends, but nothing was open on Sundays. This became our first target.

We introduced a newer event called Bulldog Brunch & Browse. The intent was simple: to get fans out of their hotel and leave an economic impact on the community. This would consist of a four-hour promotional period on Sunday when downtown would spring to life. The shops would be open and restaurants would offer special deals or signature dishes. Everyone thought this was a no-brainer, but then only eight businesses said they would participate. Stil, we put our heads down and pushed forward.

After that first weekend, those eight participants had amazing days. They could not believe how well they had done. They started to tell others, and by the end of the first season, more people were participating than not. This might sound simple, but it is a profound example of the strategic intent of events. Everyone knows that most retailers could not make it if it weren’t for the Christmas holidays. Many say 30 percent to 40 percent of their entire business is done in those four weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. With the introduction of this one event, these retailers earned another six or seven days where the volume was as good as their best holiday shopping days.

One event. Increased profits. Increased sustainability.

The numbers are even more compelling than the story. Stores sold an extra $70,000 in the first year alone. Starkville has seen a growth in sales tax collection every quarter since this promotion has begun. And the impact is not just during football season, but has been experienced year round.  These increases in sales tax revenue have meant a 20 percent boost in the city’s budget, and tourism revenue has increased from $59.8 Million to $80.9 million a year.

In the Upstate, events like this happen in communities all over, from Squealin’ on the Square in historic downtown Laurens to Fall for Greenville. Some events are simply community celebrations; some are simply intended to introduce people to the place you call home, but the ones that can engage the customer, invite them in, and make the cash register ring, those are Economic Development.