Citizens curious about the upcoming 1% hospitality tax referendum to fund the planned Cornerstone Park had an opportunity to get their questions answered at a form hosted by the Starkville Daily News Thursday night.
The forum allowed the community to hear from a panel of six people involved in the project in various ways. Members included: Starkville Republican State Rep. Rob Roberson, Starkville Mayor Lynn Spruill, Starkville Ward 2 Alderman Sandra Sistrunk, Starkville NAACP President Yulanda Haddix, Greater Starkville Development Partnership Director of Tourism and interim CEO Jennifer Prather and Starkville Parks and Recreation Executive Director Gerry Logan. The Starkville Board of Aldermen unanimously approved a referendum for the tax to be set for May 30, with absentee voting beginning Friday. For the tax to pass, at least 60% of votes counted must be in favor. Residents of Ward 5 will also vote for their next alderman on the same ballot. The park is planned to be located on the west side of town where Highway 25 crosses over Highway 12 near Walmart, at the southwest corner of the crossing.
Spruill said once the park is built, the city will have an anchor in each direction, with Cornerstone to the west, Mississippi State University to the east, the Starkville Industrial Park to the north and the Mississippi Horse Park to the south. With a price tag between $18 million and $22 million, Spruill said it would be the largest project undertaken in the city’s history.
“It’s not just about the park,” Spruill said. “That’s kind of the sexy part of it, because we’ve got this great rendering that shows us the fields that are baseball and softball fields, but also part of it is to increase soccer offerings, and part of that is to change McKee Park into a different kind of park.”
When Cornerstone Park is built, baseball fields will be removed from McKee Park opening up other uses for the land, including a possible amphitheater.
“Our parks are ongoing projects, but we are going to be focusing on all of the opportunities for sports.”
Spruill also said the park could be an opportunity to get more young people acquainted with MSU.
Addressing a question regarding the park being able to handle baseball/softball and soccer events going on simultaneously, Logan said consolidating baseball and softball to Cornerstone
would help open up opportunities for other sports and other venues.
“The three-part vision is supposed to go baseball and softball at Cornerstone, and then we’ll be able to renovate the Sportsplex to add more soccer and athletic fields, and then the third part will be to update our existing parks,” Logan said.
Logan also said his department was working from a strategic plan, making regular improvements and additions to Starkville parks.
In response to a question regarding why a tax increase referendum was being used to potentially fund a new park instead of infrastructure and other projects, Roberson said money raised with such a tax could only be used to fund the Cornerstone project. Roberson sponsored the referendum bill along with Starkville Democratic State Rep. Cheikh Taylor.
“The reality is that this particular tax that we’re using can’t be used for anything else,” Roberson said. “What we’re doing with this is a tourism tax, and even if these other projects were finished, we still couldn’t use this particular funding for this project on roads. The legislature doesn’t allow us to do that.”
Both Roberson and Spruill also emphasized that Blackjack Road was under the control of Oktibbeha County, not the city of Starkville. Roberson mentioned that the county had the money for Blackjack repairs, and was sorting out some easement issues before work could begin.
“This tax, the way we’re doing it, is specifically set aside for economic development,” Roberson said.
In response to another question, Prather discussed potential economic benefits the community could see from the park.
“Looking at Starkville in the fall, which is when we’re really at maximum capacity, our hotels generally operate at about 75% occupancy,” Prather said. “Obviously on a football weekend we all know they’re 100%, but when you average it out they’re at about 70%. In the summertime, they would tell you that they operate at about 40%. What we’re looking at is the ability to host year-round events that bring in large groups of people.”
Prather also said the Partnership would help market the facility across the Southeast to try to bring more tournaments and other opportunities to Starkville.
Logan said the main demographic of players playing tournaments at Cornerstone would be between five and 14 years old.
“We talk a lot about the tournaments and economic development, and that’s wonderful, but I don’t want us to ever lose sight of the fact that our rec baseball teams which went from 500 or so participants last year to 700 and something participants this year, they’re going to get to use this field too,” Sistrunk said. “There needs to be a sense of community pride that we are providing our children with this level of facilities, and that has to play out in our community’s psyche.”
When asked about any issues they had faced with people showing opposition to the referendum, most members of the panel said the majority of issues stemmed from a lack of understanding.
“It’s coming from money you already put into the economy,” Haddix said. “The key is just education, making sure they understand the reason why the park is coming.”
Haddix also said it was important to ensure people understood the value Cornerstone would add to the community.
“It’s just understanding the value of the park,” Haddix said. In her closing statement,
Spruill urged citizens to vote and not to take the 60% for granted.
“I would love to have 100%, but in reality, 60% is a hurdle,” Spruill said. “I know people say ‘it’s going to pass, I’m not going to worry about it.’ Please worry about it with me. Stay up at night and worry about it until the 30th, because 60% is nothing to sneeze at.”
A complete livestream of the forum can be found on the SDN website.