MISSISSIPPI BUSINESS JOUNAL - Starkville's Cotton District Draws on Traditional Styles, Careful Detail.
08/04/97, Vol. 19, Issue 31
Project is three decades of creativity, adventure for developer
STARKVILLE -- "We do it all. We don't allow anybody to come in and do anything. They'd probably screw it up."
For those who know Starkville builder and developer Dan Camp, those words have an instant familiarity. Not knowing this outspoken, in-your-face 57-year-old, those words speak volumes.
And what his words and his pet project -- the Cotton District -- might not expose about this businessman, his calling card does. It reads, quite simply: The Cotton District, Dan Camp, Community Visionary.
"What I'm doing right here is making this the best damn street in Mississippi," Camp said, as he sits behind a small cluttered desk exhibiting slides that reveal the transformation the once blighted Cotton District has undergone.
Once a collection of row houses and shanties, the neighborhood existed on the edges of Mississippi State University and housed workers for the nearby cotton mill until the late 1950s.
Camp has done more than just redevelop one street. He has single-handedly turned around -- one building, flower bed and handmade fountain or French door, at a time -- one of Starkville's less sightly neighborhoods. It has become the happening place to live for affluent college students and young professionals, said Joel Clements, executive vice president for National Bank of Commerce.
"It is a Renaissance of sorts, unmatched in the state of Mississippi," said Clements, who has been one of Camp's bankers for 14 years. Clements should know -- he has lived in the Cotton District for three years, in a section of the neighborhood called Planters Row, a collection of 28 Charlestonian-style townhomes situated on just one acre of land.
"It's a great area and we've enjoyed being there. It's 25 years into it and it's just the beginning," Clements said.
Born in Baton Rouge but raised in Mississippi, Camp said he discovered early on an affinity for designing and building. Early projects included houses carved from discarded appliance boxes and a 12foot wood and fiberglass cabin cruiser, which he began designing at age 13 but didn't launch until he was 17.
That ability as a teenager to stay focused on such a project would later prove valuable as an adult, Camp said. "My family has lots of tenacity," he said.
Camp studied industrial arts at MSU and graduated in 1962. After a short stint as a shop teacher for the Vicksburg school district, Camp returned to Starkville in 1967 to teach blueprint reading, drafting and shop and he has never left, even when some probably wished he would, he jokingly said.
In fact, since he started this venture in 1969 with his first property -- eight, one bedroom units in a two-story, wood-clapboard structure --Camp has redeveloped dozens of properties within six blocks.
Camp and his crews are typical of the detail that goes into each project. A new $300,000 four-plex is under renovation and scheduled to open this month. All totaled, Camp now rents more than 130 properties throughout the Cotton District. Owner-occupied properties, which range from 900 square feet to 2,100 square feet sell for $70,000 to $130,000. Rental properties range in size from just a few hundred square feet for a converted garage apartment that may rent for $250 per month, to a two-room, two bath in a duplex that rents for $750. And even at those rates, Camp has no problem renting the properties to the nearby student population. It is a far cry from the $3,000 and less Camp originally paid for some of the property.
"The college is the engine here that drives everything in the neighborhood,' Camp said. "What I've done here is the new direction for real estate development.
You're going to see more and more and more of what I've done here."
What Camp began creating many years ago out of a simple dream and his love for traditional architecture, has since been given the name New Urbanism or Traditional Neighborhood Design, and is being replicated throughout the country.
One of the most famous examples of New Urbanism is Seaside, Fla., although dozens of examples now exist. With New Urbanism, architects, using elements of style and design, attempt to create a closeknit neighborhood with eclectic architectural styles and an emphasis on public and private places.
The Cotton District, with cobblestone alleys and walkways, porches, balconies and courtyards and meticulously-landscaped grounds, pulls people outdoors and creates a greater sense of community.
Renowned architect Andres Duany, who is credited with developing Seaside, lectured in Starkville several years ago and was amazed at what he found at the Cotton District.
"He's the most interesting story in the U.S.," Duany was quoted as saying in a 1994 issue of Builder magazine, the magazine of the National Association of Home Builders.
Camp, who criticizes many New Urbanists for being "more interested in philosophy and pontificating" than actually doing, now travels the country talking about the Cotton District. He said more people outside Mississippi are probably aware of the Cotton District than people in his own Starkville.
It was the witnessing of the Cotton District that gave leaders in Tupelo hope that a blighted downtown neighborhood could be saved, said Kelly Cofer, vice president for CEI, a real estate development company in Tupelo.
"We were excited about our downtown project before we even knew about Dan Camp or the Cotton District," Cofer said. "But when we went in and saw what he did it just overwhelmed us. It made it possible to visualize our end products."
Cofer, Camp and others are now hoping to take some of those elements that have turned the Cotton District into one of the most sought-after properties and do the same in an area of Tupelo where Camp grew up. As for the Cotton District, Camp is now hoping to develop a 24-hour commercial district with a grocery store and other retail shops.