August 30, 2009 12:17:00 AM
Tim Pratt -
STARKVILLE -- Business owners in downtown Starkville have grown increasingly alarmed over the past few years as crowds during Mississippi State University football weekends have spilled into the streets.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of young adults pour in and out of downtown restaurants and bars each night, sometimes to the point where Starkville police have closed portions of Main Street to vehicle traffic.
Responding to concerns of overflowing crowds and a recent purse snatching, Starkville''s Downtown Business Association met with city officials, police, Mississippi State University representatives and others Friday to come up with a solution. And one might be in store.
A plan being considered would prohibit vehicle traffic on Main Street, but only during the late-night hours, on home-game weekends. The move, which Downtown Business Association President Melissa Dixon plans to discuss with fellow business owners, would create an atmosphere similar to Beale Street in Memphis and Sixth Street in Austin, Texas.
The nights could be designated "special events," and patrons would be able to walk in the street, while vendors could set up food or beer stands, according to an idea discussed Friday at the meeting. If fellow Downtown Business Association members agree to the idea, which is still theoretical, Dixon said she will discuss the plan with city officials.
Starkville Mayor Parker Wiseman was at the Friday morning meeting, along with aldermen Jeremiah Dumas and Eric Parker, and seemed pleased a solution could be in reach. If the city agrees to close a downtown portion of Main Street from 10:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. or so, during home football weekends, motorists and police would be prepared and could plan accordingly. It also would alleviate crowded sidewalks.
"There''s some really neat possibilities here if people are willing to think outside the box," Wiseman said.
Starkville Police Chief David Lindley said he could close down Main Street from Washington Street to Lafayette Street, or from Washington Street to Jackson Street, with "no problem."
"Whatever you want to do," Lindley said.
Lindley also responded to the Business Association''s safety concerns, namely the Aug. 15 purse snatching and a handful of fights that have broken out over the past year. Incidents such as fights in the streets have forced some restaurant and bar owners to lock their patrons inside until police have quelled the situation.
The Starkville Police Department keeps six officers on duty downtown during home football weekends, Lindley said, and security cameras recently were installed at the intersection of Main Street and Lafayette Street, and Main Street and Washington Street.
Additionally, the state''s office of Alcoholic Beverage Control will set up a command station during MSU''s first home football game of the season, scheduled for Sept. 5 against Jackson State University.
Jason Counts, an Alcoholic Beverage Control agent, was on hand at Friday''s meeting and said 15 agents will be stationed downtown during the Jackson State weekend.
Beefing up security
Dixon asked Lindley for increased police presence during every home football weekend, which he said he would try to do, but he also warned he has to work with his existing budget and staff to the best of his ability.
"It''s all about where you want to put your officers and how," Lindley said.
He also said the downtown area only has one or two "high profile" incidents per year, such as the purse snatching and fights.
"Have we had any shootings downtown? No. Have we had any stabbings? No. Have we had any rapes? No," Lindley said. "It''s not like we have this violent crime and blood running down the gutters. We just got what we asked for -- a lot of people socializing on Main Street."
Lindley warned that his officers could tell people not to loiter on public sidewalks if that''s what business owners want, but that would lead to questions of why some people are forced to move and not others. He also said officers could begin enforcing on a "Draconian" level, but the tactic might scare patrons away from downtown businesses. And he doesn''t want that.
"Be careful what you ask for," Lindley said. "You might get it. Then nobody will want to come downtown."
Another concern among business leaders was the propensity for Columbus and West Point residents to come to downtown Starkville with no intention to frequent businesses there. Some loiter and hang out, or bring their own alcohol and drink from their vehicles. The suspects in the purse snatching are from Columbus.