Wiseman reflects on time in office, staff commend his leadership and guidance

Austin Montgomery
City Reporter

Starkville has known one mayor since 2009. In that time, the city has seen an increase in development and economic prospects, coupled with an expanding tax base and infrastructure backbone.

Mayor Parker Wiseman announced earlier this week he will forgo a bid at a third mayoral term, to the surprise of many city staffers and residents. Wiseman was elected in 2009 with nearly 60 percent of the total 3,854 ballots cast. He was re-elected in 2012 after winning over 55 percent of the 4,152 votes tallied. At the time of his first election win, he was recognized as one of the youngest mayors ever elected in the state.

"We prayed about it a lot and discussed it a lot as a family," Wiseman said. "It was a very difficult decision. In the end, we felt the time was right on two fronts. We were at a point where we could say we did what we said we were going to do. We laid out an agenda eight years ago, and four years ago it wasn't done. Four years ago, it was easy to run again because we had many things that were hanging in the balance. We were at a point where we could say that we had set an agenda and we had worked tirelessly to achieve it."

Wiseman and his wife of eight years, Lindsey, expect a third child in April. The pair, along with their four-year-old Amelia and two-year-old Graham, knew the time was right to walk away from public service. Parker and Lindsey met in 2006 while at the University of Mississippi in law school. He earned his graduate degree in public administration at the University of North Carolina, and his juris doctorate at Ole Miss.

"The other big factor is our family," Wiseman said. "As much as I love the job, public service jobs require tremendous sacrifice of the entire family. We have enjoyed making that sacrifice. We feel it's time for our family to be at center stage."

The family hasn't decided what comes next, but Wiseman noted he and Lindsey would take the next two months to discuss the future. The mayor added he has no immediate political aspirations, but did not rule out running for elective office in the future.

"Political office is not supposed to be permanent," Wiseman said. "I've never been a term limit advocate, but I think politicians should look introspectively when the time is right to move on hand the reins to someone else."

In his nearly-eight years in office, the city has fostered partnerships between Mississippi State University, Oktibbeha County and development communities. Since 2009, nearly $386 million of new, permitted construction was approved, while real property values within city limits increased over 30 percent; along with increasing the city's sales tax collections nearly 40 percent since 2010. Since 2009, the city's general reserves increased over 600 percent, and Starkville shed a negative outlook rating in 2009.

On Tuesday, multiple department leaders took time to thank Wiseman for his tireless good will and his unwavering heart for public service.

"I've worked fro several mayors," said City Clerk Lesa Hardin. "One thing I can say about Parker is that he always respects everyone's opinion, even if he doesn't agree with it. He is never afraid to listen to everyone and he's always willing to let the department heads work through ideas or problems with him."

"I've done work in about 20 states, and dealt with lots of municipalities—good, mediocre, bad and horrible—Parker is always there with progressive ideas that are not always very popular here in Starkville, and that's something our city needs," added Community Development Director Buddy Sanders.

To Starkville Police Department Chief Frank Nichols, working with Wiseman had been a great learning experience.

"Even though I am at least 10 years his senior, I have learned a lot from him," Nichols said. "I have learned patience, a lot of patience from him. He's also helped me to accept criticism and view different perspectives."

Starkville Fire Department Chief Charles Yarbrough echoed Nichols' thoughts, and praised the mayor's key accomplishments.

"Over the last year, I've enjoyed working one-on-one with him on many occasions," Yarbrough said. "I am very impressed with what he has accomplished at his age, and over such a short period of time. I pray that God will guide him in his next career and I hope that Starkville remains his home."

Wiseman was quick to praise all staff department leaders and city staff. He thanked them for their unwavering support, and commended their continued support.

"We are very blessed to have department heads that are excellent in what they do," Wiseman said. "They are great, and work together as a team, while showing great individual skill sets. They have the best interest of the community at-heart. The best thing I can do with such a talented group is let them do their job, and do everything in my power to make sure they have the resources to do their job. Each of them knows far more about the functions of their departments than I ever will."

Over his eight years in office, Wiseman said he was most proud of the work done to secure a new City Hall; start the SPD renovation project; complete The Mill at MSU conference center; and lay the foundation to bring a large industrial park to the county.

City Hall, SPD project and The Mill

After a decade of discussion, a Mississippi Supreme Court ruling, and two years of construction, Starkville city employees moved into a new municipal building in November 2015. The now former City Hall, and future SPD headquarters, at 101 E. Lampkin Street, was donated by the Mississippi National Guard to the city in 1968.

"Addressing our challenge with facilities was a huge hill to climb," Wiseman said. "In 2009, we had city administration, police and municipal court all sharing just over 23,000-square feet of space in the old City Hall building."

The $6.7 million project was completed after years of political negotiations, and was part of a larger $12.1 million plan to renovate the Lampkin Street location for SPD—a plan that broke ground last summer, and will reopen for SPD in April 2017.

Lawmakers approved a $5.4 million plan to upgrade the Lampkin Street facility for SPD, and the project was slowed following a failed state appropriations request and an initial first round of project construction bids, but the project is on track to reopen next spring, officials said.

"There have been a lot of ups and downs in the process, but we are in a position where our core facilities are not only in a sustainable position, but frankly, they're symbols of civic pride and they will be for years to come," Wiseman said.

In October of last year, the city welcomed the historic grand opening of The Mill at MSU, a state of the art conference center on Russell Street. The development had been years in the making, and was a public-private partnership between the city, county, MSU and the state.

The 113-year old mill was built in 1902 and expanded in the early 20th century to house the John M. Stone Cotton Mill. On site, cotton from farms around Mississippi was turned into fabric until the business closed in 1962. MSU purchased the property in 1965 and named it the Cooley Building. It was used as the physical plant for the university until 2012. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.

Plans to renovate the 93,000-square foot building were developed in 2003 but stalled following the 2008 financial crisis. In 2012, developer Mark Castleberry signed onto the plan as project manager.

"You find on most of the things most important, they're the hardest to accomplish," Wiseman said. "The Mill was certainly one of those challenges. There were so many moving parts."

Industrial Park

Last summer, the board approved the final plans to fund a $14 million project to develop a 386-acre industrial park in northwest Starkville. The move looks to boost future job creation, and bring the county in line with regional industrial competitors.

The project is expected to break ground next year, and also boost the city's natural gas infrastructure following an agreement by the Mississippi Public Service Commission and Atmos Energy. 4-County Electric also agreed to build a 56-megawatt substation at the future park at not cost to the city.

The project is a joint effort between the city, county, Oktibbeha County Development Authority, Atmos and 4-County.

"All progress is built on a foundation of community leaders and organizations working together," Wiseman said. "They succeed if there's cooperation. We've worked from day one to build those relationships within the county and regionally."

Along with the industrial park, a tri-county effort in the Golden Triangle is underway to break ground on a $36 million workforce training center.

To foster development and cooperation, the current mayor also founded a meeting schedule to coordinate monthly and quarterly meetings between university, city, county and private entities to discuss future projects.

Tourism in Starkville

Since 2009, tourism spending in Starkville has increased by 56 percent, and the city was named one of the country's best small college towns by bestcolleges.com. Starkville was also named a top five location nationwide in which to open a restaurant by Restaurant Business. The city earned the title of being one of the top eight retirement cities by Where to Retire. Starkville later earned a top 50 ranking for sports fans by Wallet Hub.

"People compare and measure college towns across the country," Wiseman said. "We want to be considered one of the best college towns in the United States."

Controversial issues

Two issues during his time as mayor—the approval, then revocation of a city staff plus-one insurance option for same-sex partners; and the removal of the Mississippi state flag—brought out the best of the Starkville community, Wiseman recalled.

"There comes a time as a leader when you have to articulate your stance on and issue honestly, and from the heart," Wiseman said. "It's also about being respectful of those who disagree with that opinion. In both of those instances, we had very exhaustive public discussions. I was pleased to see, aside from them being emotionally-charged issues, that people listened to each other and we had a dialogue that was civil, respectful and keeping with the pillars of American democracy that we hold dear."

In September 2014, a pervious board initially approved an insurance policy granting coverage for sam-sex partners of municipal employees, but was revoked after a major public pushback. Wiseman tried and failed to veto the issue, and his veto was voted down—shortly before the U.S. Supreme Court legalized sam-sex marriage in June 2015.

In July 2015, Starkville was one of the first Mississippi cities to remove the state's flag and accompanying Confederate battle emblem from all city properties.

"In spite of the fact they were difficult, I think the community has to grapple with difficult issues," Wiseman said.

Looking back on his time in office, Wiseman said he hoped Starkville residents would understand how thankful he was for being able to serve the city for two terms.

"I am extremely grateful to the people of the Starkville community for giving us this opportunity over the last eight years," Wiseman said. "It has been one of the greatest honors of our lives, and we look forward finish it strong."

Municipal elections will be held in June 2017, and the next board will take office July 1, 2017. All qualifying for city races must be completed by January 1, 2017.