MSU students, Smithville leaders collaborate

By Robbie Ward/MSU University Relations

STARKVILLE – The same day the town of Smithville joined together to light 16 Christmas trees honoring those who died in April’s deadly tornado, a few residents visited Mississippi State University to collect ideas about the town’s future.
One of the most powerful tornadoes on record in the United States struck Smithville in April, whirling away people, buildings, cars, pets and countless other important fixtures to the Monroe County town.
But no force from Mother Nature – not even an EF5 tornado – can erase the sense of community and pride from the 800 residents who survived.
Helping with the recovery, 27 Mississippi State University architecture students spent a semester meeting with the community, planning and designing possibilities for rebuilding the Monroe County town. The semester-long partnership between the university’s Carl Small Town Center and Smithville culminated on Friday, when student teams unveiled 11 different projects for the town’s new municipal complex.
Community leaders plan to incorporate parts of these projects in the upcoming comprehensive plan for Smithville and as part of rebuilding of public facilities.
Caitlin Wong, a senior architecture student from Birmingham, Ala., and two other classmates partnered to create a project that could help Smithville incorporate more environmentally friendly and sustainable buildings and strategically locate them in the best positions for the town.
Wong said viewing the aftermath of the tornado’s damage had a personal connection to her. A close friend from Tuscaloosa lost his home to a tornado that struck that same spring day.
Unlike other class projects, Wong said she felt almost an overwhelming draw to this assignment. “They have lots of hope there,” she said.
While residents know the community will never be the same after the tornado struck, many on Friday used the phrase “a modern Mayberry” when describing their town’s future.
As members of Smithville’s infrastructure committee listened to student design projects on Friday, they saw pieces of what they want the new reality to become.
Michelle Bond, a fifth-generation Smithville resident and disaster recovery manager for the town, said seeing all the student ideas helps her and others think of possibilities for the future.
“They certainly broaden your mind,” she said.
Some of those ideas include paying more attention to sidewalks and bike paths, along with drawing a closer connection between the community and the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway. Smithville’s infrastructure committee will now study the projects.
John Poros, director of MSU’s Carl Small Town Center, said this collaboration epitomizes the mission of the university center. While rooted in an unfortunate disaster, he said it offers a chance for the community to rediscover resources it has.
“We see in this an opportunity for a small town to rethink who they are in the 21st century,” Poros said. “It can allow them to enhance and rethink their identity.”