Redeveloping the Good Life
Cotton District model for Tupelo neighborhood revitalization
By Danny McKenzie
STARKVILLE - "Cash flow" is a term Dan Camp frequently uses. Maybe every 10 or 12 sentences.
Social statements are all good and fine - and Camp is not beyond sharing his social commentaries with the nearest available ear, attached, preferably, to a brain - but when push comes to shove, cash flow is the deal.
The Cotton District near downtown Starkville has become a model for the national phenomena termed "New Urbanism." In 1969, when Camp began developing the dilapidated neighborhood near the turn-of-the-century Sanders Cotton Mill the people in Starkville often used another term: "stupid." Some still use the term.
Not that Camp is concerned with labels. His goal is to turn Holtsinger Street into "the best damn street in America."
Holtsinger is where he lives with his wife, Gemma, and sons Robert and Bonn. Of the 130 properties that Camp, 58, has developed, their family home is one of only a few that is privately owned. His home is surrounded by renovated homes-turned-apartments, and it is the diversity of the neighborhood that Camp enjoys, nearly as much as the cash flow.
While he speaks freely and intensely of diversity, community, ambiance, neighborhoods, atmosphere, and such, Camp never strays far from the bottom line.
Perhaps it is his background that keeps him focused on debits and credits. He is the son of Tupelo educators and himself a former high school and university teacher. Poverty was never a threat, but neither was wealth.
Camp is frequently referred to as a developer, but he prefers the term - and it is on his business card - "community visionary." Any scoffs, and there are many, are quickly dispelled when Camp plops the doubt party into a golf cart and begins the tour of the Cotton District.
The renovated properties within the neighborhood Camp has created give off the air of Charleston, New Orleans, Williamsburg or Vicksburg, the Mississippi River city where he taught industrial education for two years after graduating from Mississippi State University.
The Cotton District is a community of apartments of varying sizes, duplexes, four-plexes, efficiency apartments - and Planters Row, a former pathway turned into a narrow street of 28 privately owned town homes situated on one acre.
While the dwellings are of the Greek Revival genre, Camp has been known to use such terms as "Mississippi Dogtrot Italianade." They maximize every available inch of space, utilizing lofts and balconies. No detail is overlooked, and much of the millwork is handcrafted by Camp's own employees - not unusual since all the properties are renovated by his crew that now includes a second generation of workers.
"When I started this in 1969, I had no idea what I was doing," Camp says. "Of course, nobody else understood what I was doing, either, so it turned out to be beneficial for me to be considered one of the local fools."
Though he is still considered a "local fool" by many in Starkville, Camp is content to keep right on doing what he does: Building attractive, functional, high-quality - affordable - housing, and making the Cotton District a showplace for "New Urbanism."
Camp, an astute businessman, he swears he has no idea how much money he has spent renovating the Cotton District. "I don't know - millions?" is his answer. "I'm afraid to go back and look. I might start thinking I don't know what the hell I'm doing."
But what Camp has done is build a neighborhood for hundreds of Mississippi State students where they can have fun and live safely. As much as it means to the students, it means that much more to many of their parents.
"Maybe it's because they know I'm here with my family, but I think most of them feel comfortable here," he says. "This is really a fun, high-energy area to live in."
Tupelo is but the latest of several towns and cities to take notice of the Cotton District. In its effort to revitalize the downtown area, the Historic Downtown Neighborhood Association has called on Camp for his advice.
As is his wont, Camp has obliged with his opinion - and on behalf of his cash flow he would like to oblige with his money.
Larry Otis, president of the Tupelo neighborhood association, says what Camp has done in the Cotton District is exactly what his group foresees for the area on Madison Street, north of Main.
Once a very prosperous neighborhood, in recent years the area between the Lee County Library and Robins Noble Park has fallen on hard times. Many of the properties are run down and city codes are openly violated. Crime is not uncommon.
The neighborhood association has begun working with organizations and individual landlords to reclaim the area by investing in renovation.
"This is an economics-based project designed to bring the neighborhood back to being a safe place to live," said Otis, who lives in the neighborhood. "This is not a black-white thing; the diversity that exists in our neighborhood now will be maintained.
"This is a four-year project, but we can make a dramatic impact this first year."
Community Enterprise Incorporated recently purchased a home on the corner of Madison and Allen streets. It is the first of 15 parcels CEI has targeted for purchase and renovation.
Kelly Cofer, head of CEI, said the once those 15 parcels have been sold and renovated, either into apartments or single-family houses, the profits would be reinvested in the larger area from Front to Gloster streets.
"We want to have a whole neighborhood where children not only feel safe walking or riding their bicycles from Robins Field to the library, but where they actually want to walk or ride through the area," Cofer said. "We want to remove the fear factor."
Mayor Glenn McCullough has thrown his support behind the redevelopment project, "because I don't see a downside to it."
"I've liked the project from the start, but what I've been most encouraged by recently is the response, the positive response, to the actions the city council passed the other night," McCullough said, referring to a package of redevelopment incentives approved Tuesday.
"The attitude of the people has been great, especially from those people who live in the neighborhood where this will all start. In due time, what's going to happen in this neighborhood will be a model for the whole city."
For his part, Camp wants to see it happen - if not as an investor, which he plans on being, then as a former Tupeloan who grew up on Fletcher Street.
"When you start making neighborhoods livable and lively what you're doing is making the whole downtown area viable," Camp says. "There will be those who tell you it won't happen, but it will. You'll start seeing a restaurant or two come in and you'll even see 'satellite' grocery stores. There will be an increase in a lot of retail activity.
"Once you've brought people back downtown, you've revitalized downtown."
And once the downtown is revitalized, the cash flow increases.