EDUCATION: Community development – MSU students offer master plan ideas in Delta town

By Leah Barbour/Mississippi State University

STARKVILLE, Miss.–It was a cold, dark night in Leland as community members gathered at the Mississippi State University Delta Research and Extension Center to talk with students about their community development ideas.

More than 50 people came to the B.F. Smith Building to see the community master plans developed this semester by teams of MSU landscape architecture students in the senior design class taught by Taze Fulford, associate professor of landscape architecture.

After a two-day visit to Leland in September, teams of students developed the plans to give Leland residents ideas about how to make the town more attractive for residents, visitors and industries.

Focus areas included Deer Creek, which runs through the center of town; the Jim Henson Museum, birthplace of Kermit the Frog; and Leland Oil Works, a former cottonseed oil mill, now vacant.

Leland leaders, including James Lowe, city mayor; Stephanie Patton, president of the Leland Chamber of Commerce board of directors; Cary Karlson, executive director of Washington County Economic Development; and Bob Neill, executive chamber director, were just a few of the officials on hand to tour the displays and ask the students questions about their ideas for the community.

MSU landscape architecture’s involvement in the project is actually an extension of the work begun with Joe Fratesi, community development director at MSU’s John C. Stennis Institute of Government and Community Development, when Leland participated in the First Impressions program a few years ago, according to Lowe and Patton.

“It’s great to have organizations like the Stennis Institute and the university come to communities challenged with ideas, resources and funds,” Lowe said. “It’s great to bring those students’ talent to life, and they’re a great group of kids.”

Patton agreed and said she thought the students visiting Leland and seeing the community’s strengths for themselves undoubtedly helped them identify places for improvement. Also, the students brought a fresh perspective to the town.

“They had some great ideas for repairing the footbridge that goes over the creek,” Patton said. “I loved the ideas of enhancing the creek because one of Leland’s biggest assets is Deer Creek, and the students did a great job of showcasing that without overdoing it. It’s still going to remain aesthetically pretty. I really like their ideas for downtown: Bringing the trees in, narrowing the streets and making it more pedestrian-friendly.

“They’ve just really hit on some great stuff for us.”

Two students, Will Stockton of Hernando and Bennett Smithhart of Brandon, said their primary goal was to make certain that Leland residents found the best ways to emphasize their community’s strengths.

“In the downtown area, we focused on adding trees, better parking, better crosswalks and dressing up each building, which will hopefully bring in more business, retail and more living opportunities as well,” Stockton said.

Smithhart said coming up with ideas to improve the town wasn’t as big of a challenge as expressing them with an appropriate level of detail to remain accessible to the community, yet still feature the particular elements necessary to making the project a reality.

Students participating in the project said they wished they had more time to create the community master plans, but community leaders agreed they had great new ideas about how to make their community a better place.

Like Leland, other Mississippi communities can avail themselves of MSU community development resources offered by the Stennis Institute and the MSU Department of Landscape Architecture: Contact Fratesi at 662-325-6703 or joe@sig.msstate.edu for more information.