Editor's note: To increase public awareness, a bi-weekly interview with Chief Administrative Officer Taylor Adams will be conducted and posted to the city website. Topics will mostly stem from the latest Board of Alderman meeting, but may cover any recent development involving city government. The interviews are meant to be of a loose and candid nature, a fireside chat if you will. Henceforth, the interview will be presented as a podcast.
Q: Former alderman Jeremiah Dumas (now MSU's parking and transit director) and City Engineer Edward Kemp presented a lengthy presentation at the Oct. 21 meeting regarding the MSU S.M.A.R.T transit system, concerning its operation near Lynn Lane and the Sportsplex. Damaged bus-stop infrastructure at the Sportsplex seemed to provide a catalyst to develop a long-term plan to fully develop the Sportsplex/Lynn Lane intersection – complete with turn lanes, traffic lights and cross walks. Will you comment on this project and its significance?
A: Sure, first I think you have to establish where we view the parks in the overall matrix of our community. Understanding first the parks have an autonomous board that makes all its decisions, what we cannot deny though is that they are still part of the city. And in many cases the parks are the front door to our city; it's the first thing a lot of visitors will see when they come to visit and in some cases it's the only thing they will see.
Now, the ease with which people can navigate our infrastructure around these important hubs, which the parks are, has to be a high priority for us. As it relates to the presentation, I thought they did outstanding work. What they laid out was a multi-phase project that would not just improve the 'park-and-ride' aspects of our public transit system (and the stops there at the Sportsplex) but would improve the overall experience that anyone coming to our community and utilizing our parks will have. Now I think the next step for us on the staff side is to set about finding a means of paying for it, so that if it's the board's will we can fully implement that plan.
Q: Mississippi State forks up in the ballpark of a million dollars a year for the S.M.A.R.T system, aided, of course, by money from a MDOT rural transportation grant. For the city's part, it’s tasked with assisting with infrastructure and bus shelters. The joint system, serving campus and the city, transported nearly 490,000 individuals since the year's beginning. That's impressive for a community of this size. How important is this public transportation to the city of Starkville?
A: What does public transit mean to Starkville? Well, one of the core tenants of any public official's approach to governments should be: a government should be representative of its entire people. And the reality is there are a number of people in our community, particularly when you look at our poverty statistics, who are denied access to basic transportation. What this burgeoning public transit system is providing the bones for, if you will, is a meaningful way to help our most undeserved citizens get from one part of our community to another. Also, all of the routes are in some way linked to public buildings – city hall, the sheriff's department, the department of health, the Sportsplex, the hospital. It's a meaningful way to help those who don't have the means to navigate our community and can even expose people to better employment opportunities. As it grows, it will only get better.
And what's amazing to me – and of course this is why MSU is so important – normally there's no way a community of our size could even have a conversation about public transit. But because of this partnership, along with the grant, we've found a way to do it. As revealed at the meeting, the city routes (Sportsplex Express, Old Main Express and Boardtown Loop) have increased ridership by nearly 400 percent. That is an outstanding trend and speaks to the progressive direction Starkville is heading right now.
Q: The board made progress with Phase One (only $10,000 of the tentative $75,000) of improving the sidewalks on Layette Street near Main. Ultimately, this could create a new wheelchair ramp for full ADA access and provide new guard rails, steps and proper leveling. Not to mention improved aesthetics with planters. What will this mean for business owners newly investing on that block?
A: The first action the board took, pertaining to Phase One, shows the board is responsive to the development that a number of property owners have brought to Lafayette Street. No doubt when you look at the last 10 years, downtown has come a long way and that trend will continue on Lafayette. At the meeting, our policy makers showed recognition to the change that is coming there. On the staff side, the most important changes, as they relate to public need, involve improved ADA access at the south end of the block. Eventually, a ramp needs to be there. Streetscape will also be improved via planters and canopies, which is equally important because it speaks to who we want to be as a city.
In this day-and-age, a successful city has got to have a strong central business core, and we see that growing near Main Street – a new city hall, Lafayette expansion, recent condominium developments on Caldwell. But it's important the city operationally takes steps to insure that investment continues and that's what this three-phase project will help do. Once completed, it's important we carry on the work to make sure there is an incentive to continue that development all the way down to Hwy 182 so our downtown can expand.
Q: Some were concerned that Phase One only focuses on one prominent developer, Tabor Development. Can you comment on that?
A: Everything touched in Phase One is public infrastructure that serves every merchant on the block. Now granted, it's happening in front of the building that Tabor Development owns; but as it stands right now from an ADA standpoint, the biggest issue exists there because the cross slope is impassable. It's also important to note Tabor Development is building a sidewalk down the side of that building, so while Phase Two approaches, there will be an ADA access point mid-block for the first time.
Again, separating staff from policy (my staff doesn't make policy, we're operation folk), the operational concerns are on the south end of the block as it relates to ADA access and improved aesthetics. However, there were a number of Layette business owners in attendance, including one that spoke during citizen comments, who spoke in favor of it – who weren't necessarily tied to the Tabor building. I think the developers and business owners on that block understand what we are trying to accomplish. It's like an avalanche: kick the first stone, get that first piece of snowfall, so you can gain momentum. It's also fair to add Tabor is the developer, well, who asked first. This passed unanimously, so I think it's fair to say at this point there was political support to do this for whoever asked, but obviously I can't speak for the board.
Q: Ward 5 Alderman Scott Maynard motioned to proceed with resurfacing a section of Garrard Road between North Montgomery and Hwy 389, using surplus from last's year's road repair budget. Why was Garrard Road the priority? How does the city determine this?
A: The city engineer does a survey of all roads every year. That section was at the top of list. Sure, other roads are in bad shape, but here is what is different about Garrard, from my perspective anyway. That area has high traffic and is highly traveled, particularly where the Garrad extension connects to Old West Point and the Hwy 12 bypass. Just a couple of years ago, no one would have dreamed of putting a four-way stop at the intersection of Garrard and 389 (Jackson Street), but with that extension, a Department of Transportation study showed there was enough traffic to justify it.
Sidewalks already existed at the Garrard Road extension, around the corner on Jackson and running south on Montgomery. As part of a capital improvement campaign in the summer, the board completed that sidewalk with a connection. That's a large portion of our sidewalk infrastructure, a really great public project done in-house with our own staff and labor. That said, resurfacing this short section of the road (a single block) will complete the work on Garrard.
That's why I think it was chosen: it's high traffic, half the work is already done with sidewalks and this closes the book on that project. It takes it off the list for 2015, so the 2015 budget will go further now because that project, being at the top of list, was going to get tackled this year anyway. Now it's been done with last year's money, and it opens up the door for another project that can be tackled in 2015.
Q: Proposed by Ward 3 Alderman David Little, the board unanimously decided to establish set hours for trick-or-treating. Now this is just an order, not an ordinance. Can you explain the difference and the reasoning behind this?
A: For an ordinance, a public hearing is required and it’s folded into the code of ordinances of the city. This is a board order, which is specific to Oct. 31 of 2014.
Alderman Little brought that forward because the Arkansas game is on Nov. 1. Seeing how well our games have been attended this year, it's clear there will be a lot of additional traffic on the roads Friday night. From what I gathered, he wanted to offer the order for two reasons. One was public safety: the safety of children in street walking through neighborhoods trick-or-treating. And two, residents will have some guideline for what time to run porch lights off. It's something a number of other cities in Mississippi do. He felt it was ripe for discussion here and the board agreed unanimously.
Q: The city undertook a massive cleanup effort after the powerful Oct. 13 storm. About a week after the storm, the board decided to suspend landfill fees and also pick up branches and limbs beyond the scope of the 8-inch sanitation ordinance. Departmental equipment and labor -- from street, electric, landscaping -- was also consolidated to assist. Care to comment on the city's effort in general?
A: At the end of the day, the government has to serve its population and a substantial portion of our community was affected by the storm that day. This was just an effort to help people put this behind them. We felt those three measures were needed to get things back in order. I’m proud of the way our staff responded, but that’s not to say we didn't make mistakes. We're like any organization: our department heads make mistakes. They are people. But in working through this crisis, I've seen where their hearts were, helping people recover and getting Starkville cleaned up. I'm appreciative for all the late nights our staff put in, and I'm appreciative of the community's patience while we went through this effort. It was a pretty big lift for us – the cleanup, getting life back to normal.