MISSISSIPPI MAGAZINE - Deep in the District

by Bill Johnson, 07/01/2001

Starkville's charming Cotton District is full of surprises, from gated courtyards to towering Charleston-like facades, all buried within a ten-block area of this north Mississippi university town.

Until recently, a stranger searching for the Cotton District in Starkville has always had to seek detailed directions. The easy-to-find change came when Dan Camp the community visionary, opened up his European-styled three-story building fronting on University Avenue between Mississippi State University and downtown Starkville. Previously, Camp was content for the ten-block Cotton District to be hidden from the casual passerby.

The once obscure Cotton District has attracted nationwide acclaim and is one of the most charming areas in the state. The architectural styles include New Orleans, Savannah, Charleston, and Byzantine, and the buildings are crowded together on narrow streets. Colorful facades, beautiful landscaping, fountains, courtyards hidden behind graceful gates, and brick-paved walkways are all things visitors will find if they take the time to explore this little area on foot. The narrow streets intentionally encourage walking and discourage driving. Parking is either in back of the units or on the sides, hidden behind the prolific landscaping.

John McRae has been dean of Mississippi State's School of Architecture for 14 years and is a great admirer of Camp's style. "I always take visitors there because it's definitely the nicest neighborhood of that type and scale in the community," McRae says. "The spacing between the buildings and around the buildings takes as much value as the buildings themselves."

Camp expounds on that. "What we've ended up doing is creating a neighborhood that's a very walkable neighborhood built to human scale," Camp says.

The 190 units include duplexes, four-plexes, and town houses and are occupied mainly by students and young professionals. There are also cottages; some have even less than 300 square feet.

A student who recently completed an area apartment rental survey said that the monthly rates of $295 to $800, depending on size and amenities, are premium charges. She also observed that the District "...never sleeps." According to Camp, the District runs close to 100% occupancy.

John Bean has recently renewed his lease on the Cotton District Grill, located in the heart of the area (he admits that a stranger couldn't find it). He explains the District's popularity this way: "Dan has put a product out there that students want. There's a certain 'hipness' to living in the District." The popular Grill has doubled its business in the ten years of Bean's operation.

Camp's achievement in developing the District has been described by one of his bankers as "miraculous."

It all started in the late 60s when Camp was on the faculty of MSU and spotted the woebegone area that had housed cotton mill workers since the turn of the century. The mill had gone under, and the housing had become a slum area, but Camp saw the value of the property's location between downtown and the campus. He began buying the 5,000 square foot lots.

Decked out in his usual attire of gray sweatshirt, gray shorts, jogging shoes, and khaki baseball cap, the bearded Camp recalls, "Everybody thought I was the town fool, but I knew I needed a better mousetrap." 
The vision of the better mousetrap came while Camp was studying for his doctorate at North Carolina State. He saw former President Andrew Johnson's historic 18-by-22 foot cottage. 
"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. 

And so his venture began. 

Financing was a constant worry until he met Joel Clements, a Starkville banker who is now CEO of First State Bank in Waynesboro, in 1983. "Dan had begun to build his own little empire, but he needed to restructure his credit," Clements recalls. "We began a system for him to determine how much he had in each project, which enabled him to keep a sound cash flow." 
Obviously it worked, and today, despite his Waynesboro location, Clements continues to provide a sizable amount of financing to Camp's expanding development, which has an estimated value of $10 million. 
That loyalty to Clements demonstrates an underlying characteristic of Dan Camp, as does his attention to detail. During Clements' Starkville tenure, the bank changed the methodology of computing the interest rate on real estate loans. The next day, Camp stormed in demanding to know why he was being charged an extra 37 cents per week in interest. As Clements says, "That's Dan." 
His intelligence and breadth of knowledge lead Camp's friends to describe him as a "Renaissance Man." Anything from the life span of pecan trees (400-500 years) to a quick summary of European history always seems to be on the tip of his tongue. 

He has fought his share of battles along the way, but Camp admits that at the age of 59, he may be mellowing. Perhaps 15 years on the Starkville School Board have made him more tolerant. 
He thrives on the excitement of discussing his ideas with others whose ideas are as distinct as his, whether they agree with him or not. In fact, he says that he expects friends to disagree--and argue their case--with the new ideas and wide-ranging knowledge that flow from Camp like water from one of his beloved fountains. 
His most recent idea, the new building towering above heavily-traveled University Avenue, houses District Salon, Common Ground coffee shop, The Chocolate Giraffe bakery and bistro, and an interior design business called Abodes on the bottom floor, with apartments on its top two floors. With its comparatively massive size, cobalt blue color, Byzantine architecture, and three statues on the crown, the structure is hard for passersby to miss. The Cotton District sign that hangs from the center balcony of the building lets visitors know exactly where they are, but the gated courtyards and shaded alleyways that hide behind this regal facade still leave some of the quaint charm of the neighborhood for those who take the time to search it out.