March 24, 2014 10:26:57 AM
More visitors cast ballots in Starkville Restaurant Week in five days this year than 2013's entire week, and organizers say they expect weekend baseball crowds to set a high benchmark for future competitions.
Greater Starkville Development Partnership CEO Jennifer Gregory said voters cast about 10,500 ballots -- the same total collected from last year's seven-day event -- for three charities, according to a preliminary count Friday.
Mississippi State University's weekend baseball series -- the crowds it attracted to Starkville, specifically -- against Vanderbilt University are expected to boost total restaurant visits and the overall ballot count.
In the three-day series, MSU announced a combined attendance of almost 26,500 fans. Saturday's game against the Commodores was the largest crowd to watch a game at Dudy Noble Field. It was the 32nd time in school history MSU drew a crowd of 10,000 or more at Polk-Dement Stadium.
The charity ballot count begins again today, and Gregory said she expects the weekend baseball crowd to increase the vote tally to 12,000-13,000.
The Partnership will announce the winner of Starkville Restaurant Week's charity aspect 4 p.m. Tuesday at Cadence Bank Plaza. Restaurant diners last week had a chance per entree to decide which local entity -- Homeward Bound Project of Mississippi, Starkville Pregnancy Care Center and MSU's T.K. Martin Center -- will receive a $5,000 donation.
The second- and third-place runners up won't walk away empty handed, as the Partnership previously secured $1,000 and $500 consolation prizes.
Gregory would not disclose which charity was in the lead after preliminary vote counts last week but did say the leader grew its margin from 90 votes on Wednesday to about 200 Friday. With the expected influx of weekend ballots, she said the race was wide open.
"We're anxiously awaiting the results," Gregory said.
Launched last year, Starkville Restaurant Week targets Mississippi residents who live within a 60-mile radius -- about an hour's drive -- and attempts to bring them to Starkville, show off the city's culinary scene and entice future trips.
A friendly competition between local charities for cash donations was created to help bring more diners to local restaurants. Members of Starkville Convention and Visitors Bureau, a Partnership sub-group, picked this year's finalists out of about 500 unique nominations that backed 35 charities.
Restaurant Week organizers visited the 32 participating businesses before the competition and briefed employees on the event by providing server training and promotional ideas.
Gregory said participating restaurants promoted themselves and the event on social media better than last year, a sign that business owners see the value Starkville Restaurant Week brings not only to their profit margins, but also the city's sales tax streams.
The city recorded its second-highest March on record in terms of 2 percent food and beverage tax returns after last year's event. Starkville previously averaged about $132,000 in those returns until it collected $142,697.36 in 2013. The increase represented an 11.5 percent boost from March 2012.
Many restaurant owners and managers estimated they saw a 15 percent to 20 percent increase in business during last year's event.
A portion of 2 percent tax returns to the city; the remaining monies are split between various organizations, including tourism incentives, Starkville Parks and MSU student programs.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch
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