Young, educated minds are Starkville’s primary export. They also might be its biggest asset.
Story Jason Browne | Photographs Whitten Sabbatini
Parker Wiseman stepped up to the mic in the seventh grade.
He thinks the video is somewhere at his mom’s house. In front of an assembly of every restless kid at Armstrong Middle School, he stood on stage, fighting to conceal his nerves and delivered his first campaign speech.
And an inspiring thing happened. He got a few laughs.
“I’m sure I read the whole thing without looking up. People seemed to enjoy it. I didn’t know if they would,” says Wiseman.
Acceptance. He was hooked. Twenty years later he was mayor of Starkville. But at 32, Wiseman isn’t the youngest politician sitting at the top of Starkville city government. He’s third. Followed closely by a 33-year-old.
Four of the eight most powerful people in Starkville are younger than 34. And Ward 3 Alderman Eric Parker just turned 40 but looks younger.
Each of the young bucks arrived at city hall on a unique path. The only common thread is that each graduated from Mississippi State University (MSU). Most are shocked they wound up in office. Wiseman wanted to hold office one day, but he didn’t expect to earn a graduate degree, let alone be mayor of his hometown and hold a law degree before he was 30. As a city, Starkville has embraced youth. Or at least given it a shot. All but one of the sub-50 members of the Starkville Board of Aldermen and the Mayor are in their first term.
All but two plan to seek reelection in 2013. So the three remaining incumbents will find out this year exactly what the majority of voters in their wards and city think of their first foray into big-boy politics.
“We’re not living on past graces. And we’re not doing things one way just because they’ve always been done that way,” says Ward 5 Alderman Jeremiah Dumas.
During his years as a landscape architecture student, Dumas, 33, now director of sustainability at MSU, was trained to look at empty lots and existing structures and see what they could be. He doesn’t want to turn Starkville into New Orleans, but each May and December he watches waves of newly-minted professionals and potential taxpayers leave Starkville for cities with high-density neighborhoods. Places where restaurants, houses, businesses and apartment buildings share the same blocks.
“My biggest issue was pushing smart growth. And I think we’ve done that. I know for a fact we have and we’re beginning to see some of the fruits of that,” says Dumas.
Form-based codes championed by Dumas have loosened building restrictions downtown and along the forgotten thoroughfare of Highway 182. He believes the new developer-friendly rules will spur the urban growth young people crave while protecting areas that wish to remain strictly residential.
With the exception of a handful of businesses, Eric Parker’s ward is strictly residential. He had enough trouble fighting what he describes as a stigma against developers while campaigning. His company builds homes; it doesn’t develop neighborhoods.
“They probably thought I would represent only the development community and screw all the homeowners,” says Parker.
As a construction guy, he does believe in reforming planning codes and even revamping the building department to encourage growth. He also led the charge to reform the city’s storm water drainage ordinance. But his priorities lie with his ward’s infrastructure and ensuring the residential area gets the attention it needs to handle the next five years’ worth of traffic.
That could mean a lot of hassle and orange roadwork barrels in the short term if plans to add a third lane and sidewalks to South Montgomery Street go through. But drivers and pedestrians of the future will love it. And state money will pay for it.
Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver, 32, never considered running for office until his mentor and former alderman P.C. McLauren decided to call it quits.
He agrees the downtown area and Highway 182 corridor need special attention to spur growth.
He agrees a new municipal complex is necessary. But there are only so many dollars to go around, and what’s happening beneath voters’ feet gets first dibs.
“We have lots of drainage issues. Green Oaks is the worst area in the whole city without a doubt. All runoff from the Kroger parking lot, maybe 15 to 20 acres, drains into a single ditch,” says Carver. “I’d also like to see street paving become a priority again. I’m not anti-sidewalk, but we can do better keeping the streets up.”
Carver’s old job was training municipalities and cops about emergency management. A proud problem solver, he was overzealous at first. “My first week in office, a tree went down in my ward. I went and grabbed my chainsaw and cranked it up and got the job done. Mac (McLauren), told me ‘Your job is not to cut the tree down, it’s to get someone else to cut the tree down,’” says Carver.
However, he still prides himself on being available. Facebook messages about potholes are taken as seriously as calls or visits.
“My job, if nothing else, is to contact the department head and make sure projects are at least on the book if not completed,” he says.
Ward 4 Alderman Richard Corey is the youngest of the whole bunch at 31. He’s the only sub-50 member of the board in his second term and along with Dumas, isn’t seeking reelection this go-round. After seven years in the political mix, he’s developed a wry take on the whole process.
“It will be funny how fights will stop on the council during qualifying for the next election,” he quips.
His entrance to the game was a common one. Active in community service and full of opinions, Corey responded when someone posed the magic challenge: “Well, why don’t
Corey believed his background in engineering could help bring the city’s technology up to date.
He formed the tech committee that revamped the city website and introduced online payments. And he helped find a qualified system administrator to run the whole thing.
But before he did any of that, nobody knew how seriously to take Corey. His parents were leery at best. And on election night, he won by a single vote.
“The courtroom gasped,” he recalls.
Wiseman’s slogan through high school was “A wise man once said … Vote for Parker Wiseman.”
And why not? He had the credentials.
His father, Marty Wiseman, is one of the most revered political analysts in the state. And ever since he stepped up to that mic in the seventh grade, Parker knew he would work in politics, too.
After a storied amateur career spent holding elected office at every available level during his education, Wiseman returned to Starkville to get down to business. He wanted downtown to grow and look good doing it. While slashing the budget. In a down economy.
“The easiest thing to do is nothing at all because it’s not controversial. I didn’t run on a status quo agenda,” he says.
In the first year of the youth experiment, the mayor and board trimmed nearly $1 million from the budget. The next year, with nothing left to cut, they raised taxes.
“But of all municipalities in the state with more than 15,000 people, our tax rate is the absolute lowest,” adds Wiseman. “It’s amazing we can have low taxes, build the reserves and maintain our direction in a difficult economy. That doesn’t happen by accident.”
Wiseman and the young board believe they’ve solved enough of the city’s existing problems that they’ve earned the right to see their initiatives through. They want to guide the form-based codes.
They want to finally build a municipal complex. They want to see where the city’s new partnership with the Columbus Lowndes Development LINK takes them.
They’ve rattled cages with youth-centric decisions like legalizing limited alcohol sales on Sundays. They’ve appeared lost while fumbling through an awkward sidewalk ordinance.
They know they’re fodder for the know-it-alls at the Starkville Café. They wrestle with the stress of each decision. These are the growing pains all new elected officials must suffer, but especially so for such unproven commodities.
Still, all things considered, they grade themselves highly on the work they’ve done. Wiseman counts himself among those surprised by the pups’ progress.
“There’s still a lot of work ahead of us, but we’re ahead of where I expected us to be at this point,” he said.