EAST MISSISSIPPI BUSINESS JOURNAL - 'Cotton' Remains King in Starkville District
Ben Alexander, Vol. 4 No. 2 - September 2004
Looking at Starkville developer Dan Camp, most wouldn’t see a cutting-edge, visionary in residential development. But looks can be deceiving.
Camp, who’s been developing The Cotton District for more than 35 years, doesn’t wear expensive suits. He doesn’t travel with an entourage of architects and staffers by his side. Instead, Camp is usually squirreled away in his office, armed only with a simple scratch pad where he scribbles ideas for new developments.
“You don’t have to be a trained architect to know what someone will like,” Camp said. “You don’t have to be a genius to know someone wants an affordable, pleasant place to live. I try to do that … and give them something a little extra.”
It has taken Camp decades to receive the recognition he deserves. He was one of the first to create affordable apartment units with a personality and character. He has helped define a movement in restoration which is now being seen all over the nation.
His love affair with building and developing began at age 11 when he received his first hammer.
“I’m not talking about some child’s toy, either,” he said. “It was a real 16-ounce hammer. I loved it.”
It was at about age 12 or 13 he began to take interest in building. His first major project was a small cabin cruiser boat with an inboard engine.
The hobby continued until he came to Mississippi State University in 1960 as a student. Six years later, Camp would come back to Starkville and begin teaching industrial education. While in Starkville Camp began to take an interest in property development. In 1969, what would become the Cotton District began with four small lots.
“They were relatively small, and I built eight-unit apartments on them,” he said. “I thought my chances were pretty good.”
Although today’s District is teeming with students anxious to get into one of Camp’s developments, it was downright frightening at times in the beginning.
“It was one of the most blighted areas in the city,” he said. “There were actually chickens running around in some of the streets, and the housing was totally dilapidated. I even saw people having a running pistol fight out in the street. It wasn’t the kind of place where parents wanted their kids living. It wasn’t the kind of place where anybody wanted to live.”
Slowly Camp began buying up more of the housing, tearing it down and creating new apartment units. Throughout the process, he not only gave the area new living spaces, but a new life.
During the next 20 years, Camp bought and built units of all shapes and sizes.
Camp was inspired by other design work around the world, and it shows. The Cotton District has elements of Greek Revival mixed with Classical or Victorian. Many of these ideas came from Camp’s own travels to Europe and even parts of the United States.
“All these styles are compatible and work together. That’s what helps separate this area from others in the city.”
That has translated to nearly 100 percent occupancy and interest in using the Cotton District as host to tours and events.
The annual Cotton District Arts Festival now boasts as many as 10,000 attendants each year.
Camp has also gone to great expense to ensure privacy and create a small community within the heart of downtown. Dividing his lots with private alleys and streets, he has been able to get the largest number of renters while at the same time offering them privacy. Many of his properties feature private courtyards and gardens.
“People like the intimacy we can offer them compared to some of the mega-apartment complex with huge parking lots out front,” he said. “When you live in the Cotton District, you feel live you live in a neighborhood.”
While “urbanism” wasn’t yet in the vernacular of urban planners when Camp got his start, The Cotton District has become an example of the term – taking old buildings and rehabbing them for mixed use.
The area has been featured in numerous national publications, and Camp has even testified before a Congressional panel about New Urbanism. For Camp the praise is kind, but not needed. The same thing that brought him joy in the 1970s and 1980s is still giving him joy today … designing.
His latest endeavor is to build several more mixed-use buildings in the area featuring small retail spaces on the ground floor with apartment units above. He said he hopes the units will encourage students to remain in Starkville after graduation and become local entrepreneurs.
“Student support is the main reason we’ve been so successful, and I’m hoping I can encourage them to stay and open their own businesses. If I can do that, while at the same time adding some retail shops The Cotton District needs, then I’ll be happy, and I think our tenants will be, too.”