‘Community visionary’ continues shaking up Starkville

by For the MBJ

Published: July 31,2000

STARKVILLE — One good look at Dan Camp and you know he’s a non-conformist, and probably has unusual ideas. His business card says he’s a “Community Visionary.” Some community leaders are wary of him.

His balding head is covered by a khaki baseball cap, his face has a graying beard bespeaking his 59 years and he’s clad in a blue tee shirt and khaki shorts. His customary conveyance is a golf cart that sits in front of his small two-room office on a narrow street in his beloved 10-block “Cotton District” in Starkville.

Camp got the unusual idea for the Cotton District in the late 1960s while teaching teachers how to teach shop at Mississippi State. The stock market had been good to him, but he was attracted to real estate, specifically a blighted, rundown area just west of the campus that had previously housed workers for the nearby defunct Sanders Cotton Mill. He began buying the 5,000-square-feet lots.

“Everybody said I was the town fool,” Camp recalled, “but I knew I needed a better mousetrap.”

He had seen former President Andrew Johnson’s historic 16-by-18-foot cottage while studying for his doctorate at North Carolina State in Raleigh. “I suspected that most Americans lived in that type of environment then, so I came home with the idea that those types of dwellings would be an excellent way to build things and offer them to students,” Camp remembers.

So in 1969, he began building four-plexes on the lots and renting them to students and young professionals. He used a variety of architectural styles including some of New Orleans, Savannah and Charleston and interspersed the area with statuaries, courtyards and fountains. He employs about 30 people, including his l8- and 15-year-old sons, and is obviously an equal opportunity employer — Annie Higgins, his top assistant and manager of properties, is African-American, and all-business.

There are periodic “classes” for the employees where discussions will be about ideas, history, philosophy and even registering to vote. “I want people working for me who understand words and express new ideas.” But he always gets around to telling them what he wants accomplished and how it’s to be done, even when the plans may be drawn on a paper napkin.

Those different ideas have added up. Today the Cotton District has an intermix of 175 duplexes, four-plexes, town houses and cottages that range in monthly rent from $295 to $800, depending on size, location and amenities. Camp figures that conservatively, the area is worth about $10 million.

“What we’ve ended up doing is creating a neighborhood that’s a very walkable neighborhood, a neighborhood that is built to human scale, a neighborhood that defies all Southern building codes in regard to closeness of the street, the narrow streets, the sidewalks, the placement of the house according to the human scale,” he goes on. “And don’t think that’s not important because we run close to 100% occupancy here.”

Camp said the Cotton District is the most toured and most photographed area of Starkville (he credits the Convention & Visitors Council for that). However, until recently, it has been hidden from casual view due to its location.

A prominent three-story corner building — painted blue — on University Drive has changed that. Containing a coffee house (“Common Ground”), a beauty salon and retail space on the ground floor plus two floors of apartments, Camp expects it to attract all manner of activities including sales kiosks and music and craft shows when the full load of students return to campus.

A non-conformist Mississippi developer with that many innovative ideas, and the willingness to implement them, is certain to have ruffled some feathers. Currently, his biggest cross to bear is with — of all people— Mississippi State University officials. He doesn’t understand their unwillingness to release a list of their alumni to the local chamber of commerce to use for recruiting retirees. “Does that make sense to you?” Camp asks incredulously.

He said his biggest difficulty in forming the Cotton District has been getting city officials to do what’s necessary for the development, but he said Mayor Mack Rutledge has been helpful.

A question to the mayor about the city’s relationship with Camp is greeted with a long silence, then…..”Well, the very nature of his development implies a tremendous requirement for infrastructure, especially for water, sewer, and electrical services in a very concentrated area,” the mayor said.

“Unfortunately some parts of it are built on extremely ancient infrastructure development so that it’s prone to various kinds of interruptions. When Mr. Camp has a problem, he feels that it’s very important that it be taken care of promptly and sometimes we have difficulty meeting his expectations.”

Rutledge is emphatic about the benefits of the Cotton District to the city aside from the substantial increase in assessed valuation. “Well, it serves a wonderful purpose in providing housing for those who are not interested in maintenance and prefer coziness and living near the MSU campus,” he said. “I’m proud of the favorable publicity it’s brought to the city.”

East Mississippi Lumber Company gave Camp much-needed credit in his early days and has been one of his major construction suppliers. Needless to say, Andy Gaston, the president of the company, is a fan of the Cotton District.

“Dan knows what he wants and he’s very definitive,” Gaston said. “He can be difficult to deal with, but we’ve enjoyed our relationship with Dan. Because of his personality, Starkville has only realized the Cotton District, but never recognized it.”

With all that non-conformity and new ideas, it comes as a surprise when a visitor learns that Camp is in his 14th year on the Starkville School Board, and will serve his third term as president next year (it rotates every five years).

Starkville superintendent of schools Dr. Larry Box said Camp “has been an excellent school board member, is businesslike in his approach and faithful in his attendance.”

“He wants the school district to be unique by broadening the curriculum and being innovative,” Box said. He cites as examples Camp’s supporting the creation of a high school orchestra and his strong support of an environmental study project with the Noxubee Wildlife Refuge.

“The reason it works out with the school board is that we understand Dan and remain factual in our discussions, sometimes on very sensitive issues,” Box said. “He’ll make some (confrontational) statements, but we know that’s Dan and we end up working it out.”

Camp contends that the Starkville school system is the best in the state despite its accreditation level three ranking, and points out that 60% of the students are under the free lunch program, yet 83% of the graduates go on to college.

As for further changes, Camp believes the Cotton District may have reached its limits, and he admits to mellowing as the years go by — he’s even considering joining the Starkville Area Chamber of Commerce.

Now, there’s another new idea that will join the many others dancing around in Camp’s always active mind.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Bill Johnson Jr. at mbj@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1018.