News + Events

CSTC a key partner in AIM for CHANGE project

By Allison Matthews

STARKVILLE, Miss.—Mississippi State is launching a comprehensive initiative to help Mississippians battle obesity with a $5.5 million grant awarded to MSU Extension by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

David Buys, state health specialist and assistant professor in MSU’s Department of Food Science, Nutrition and Health Promotion, said obesity and associated diseases such as diabetes and hypertension are enduring problems in the state, but a new program called “AIM for CHANGE” will help Mississippians fight the problem.

Buys is the principal investigator for the five-year grant that will provide nearly $1.1 million annually over the grant period to fund AIM for CHANGE. The title is short for “Advancing, Inspiring, Motivating for Community Health Through Extension.”

MSU Extension will work extensively with the Mississippi Public Health Institute and University of Mississippi Medical Center.

A dozen of the state’s 82 counties have adult obesity rates higher than 40 percent. Buys said these high rates must be curbed to prevent increasing chronic disease rates, health care costs and premature deaths.

“AIM for CHANGE should reduce health disparities by increasing access to healthier foods and access to safe and accessible places for physical activity for all people in the target communities,” Buys said. “We will move beyond education to include approaches that change the policies, systems and environments so that sustainable changes can have a positive effect for the entire population.”

The AIM for CHANGE initiative goals include reducing obesity rates through a comprehensive approach that not only addresses issues within food systems, such as access to healthy foods, but also takes environmental and policy-level approaches to help communities address issues such as outdoor recreation, community walkability and educational programming.

The grant will engage multi-sector efforts and partnerships at the state and local levels to look at obesity through the lens of various disciplines. The core team includes experts across policy, systems, environment and individual levels with specialties in local government, food systems, landscape architecture/built environment, kinesiology/physical activity and nutrition.

A dietitian and kinesiologist will support individual nutrition and physical activity changes. A landscape architect will support county and community environmental improvements. A food systems specialist and a government and policy specialist will support county and community systems and policies. Expertise comes from MSU’s departments of Agricultural Economics, Kinesiology, Landscape Architecture and the MSU Extension Center for Government and Community Development.

The program will promote improved access to healthier foods and address public transit, and walkability to schools, worksites, parks and recreation centers through implementing master plans and land use intervention.

MSU Vice President for Research and Economic Development David Shaw said the program is among the first of its kind in that it takes a coalition-led approach to identifying needs of communities and brings expertise from various disciplines to implement solutions.

“We were able to leverage many partnerships and build on a track record of collaboration,” Shaw said. “We anticipate that this will lead to strong and enduring partnerships that will prove beneficial to our state beyond the time frame of this grant.”

Phase One will target Holmes, Humphreys, Issaquena and Sharkey counties, where UMMC already has a physical presence and is providing those areas with clinical health care services.

“We’re excited about this opportunity to assist local communities to implement policies and practices that will significantly reduce the prevalence of obesity and, ultimately, chronic diseases such as hypertension and diabetes,” said Dr. Josh Mann, project lead for UMMC and professor and chair of the Department of Preventative Medicine. “We also anticipate that this effort will lead to additional future opportunities for prevention and population health experts at UMMC and MSU to work together in tackling high-priority health challenges faced by our state.”

Dr. Richard Summers, UMMC associate vice chancellor for research, said, “Obesity is one of the most challenging conditions that impacts the health of Mississippians today. UMMC has an obligation from both the clinical and academic perspectives to address such serious health care issues facing our population. This type of federal grant funding in partnership with the Centers for Disease Control will provide needed resources for us to fulfill this obligation.”

Other key partners include the Mississippi State Department of Health; MSU’s Carl Small Town Center and College of Education; Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce; and Alcorn State University. The evaluation will be led by MSU’s Social Science Research Center.

After the program’s first year, the grant will include additional counties – targeting those with the highest obesity rates – as it continues to support Phase One coalitions. Coalitions will ensure a high degree of local involvement and empower local residents to develop healthier cultures while addressing both community and individual-level factors.

The coalitions will be developed by Mississippi Public Health Institute and will represent multiple demographic backgrounds and health statuses. Coalitions will work to avoid duplication of efforts with existing projects through frequent communication with their network of partners. They also may apply for mini grants to help address community needs. As coalitions identify preferred approaches to address factors that contribute to high rates of obesity in their communities, AIM for CHANGE leaders will provide support and technical assistance to implement solutions.

Educational programs will be delivered to community groups, schools and civic and faith-based organizations by Extension agents to increase awareness among community members about nutrition and physical activity as a means to reducing obesity.

Buys added, “It’s not often that you get this kind of partnership across so many sectors, and we’re fortunate to be in a position to coordinate this comprehensive effort.”

Kemp to serve on AIA Mississippi board

JACKSON, Miss.—Carl Small Town Center director Leah Kemp was among eleven individuals elected to serve on the board of directors for the Mississippi chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The membership organization, based in Jackson, advocates for the value of architecture and gives architects the resources they need to do their best work.

As a director for AIA Mississippi, Kemp will work with the executive director to oversee the direction of the organization. Other officers and directors elected for the 2019 term include:

  • Brian Cabunac – President
  • Shannon Gathings – Past President
  • Craig Bjorgum – President Elect
  • Jeff Seabold – Sectretary/Treasurer
  • Sally Zahner – Director
  • Jason Agostinelli – Director
  • Michael Rose – Director
  • Girault Jones, Sr. – Director Emeritus
  • Golie Ebrahimian – Associate Director

Leah Kemp selected for 2018 LEAP program at MSU

By Allison Matthews

Leah Kemp
Leah Kemp

STARKVILLE, Miss.—Carl Small Town Center director Leah Kemp is one of seventeen Mississippi State staff members selected to participate in the university’s 2018 Leadership Excellence for Accomplished Professionals (LEAP) program.

LEAP’s goals include the advancement of knowledge and enhancement of leadership skills, along with direct practical work applications for selected employees.

During the intensive four-month program, members meet with campus and community leaders from various areas to explore and more effectively develop their administrative proficiencies. Conflict resolution and decision making, managing change, effective team building, and employee performance management are among session topics.

“We’ve seen the benefits of the LEAP program through the outstanding work that continues to be done by the program’s participants. We are excited to see how this year’s candidates accept the challenge of reaching their next level of leadership and moving MSU forward,” said Darrell Easley, learning and development manager for MSU’s human resources management department.

For additional information about LEAP, contact Easley at or 662-325-2203.

Carl Small Town Center to write Starkville design guidelines

By Alex Holloway

The Commercial Dispatch

STARKVILLE, Miss.—The city of Starkville and the Carl Small Town Center are partnering to craft a set of guidelines to help preserve the character of the city’s downtown.

Community Development Department Director Buddy Sanders said the process for the guidelines started about two-and-a-half years ago.

“The historic preservation commission became concerned about possible redevelopments in the downtown area and the effect that a renovation may have on a downtown building losing the character of that historic property,” Sanders said.

Commissioners reached out to then-Greater Starkville Development CEO Jennifer Gregory, who suggested creating a set of guidelines to offer for businesses looking to move into or renovate a building downtown.

The city applied for a Certified Local Government grant through the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. In June, the city received the grant, which will offer $6,500 in reimbursement for the $13,000 contract with the Carl Small Town Center, which aldermen approved at the most recent regular board meeting. The city is paying $3,250 of the contract’s cost, and the remaining $3,250 is covered through in-kind volunteer services from the center.

Leah Kemp, director of the Carl Small Town Center, said the template is going to focus on exterior characteristics of the buildings.

“We look at the height of the buildings, the character and the materiality,” she said. “We look at how they were made. The goal is to provide options so future development can not necessarily return things to the way they were, but make decisions in keeping with the character and scale of what is already there.

“Sometimes in other cities, you can see bad examples of what not to do,” she added. “We are going to provide in our standards examples of what to do and what not to do.”

Sanders said the guidelines will focus wholly on the outside of buildings.

“A bright, canary yellow paint is not going to work on a 1910 building,” he said.

Work has to be completed on the design guidelines by mid-September, and Sanders said he expects it to be finished before then, with the center already “moving quickly” on the work.

He said the document will be strictly suggestive, rather than codified in an ordinance. Still, he said the center will likely present the document to the board of aldermen when it’s completed.

“We were very open with the Carl Small Town Center that we wanted the document to be a template for other Mississippi cities,” Sanders said.

Kemp said the work Starkville is doing could set a positive model for other communities.

“The more progressive communities around the state are the ones who understand the value of preserving their identities,” she said. “Starkville is poised to grow a whole lot more, and the local board and mayor understand that and want to make sure they’re growing in a positive way.

“I think Starkville has been charged with setting a sense of design excellence,” she later added. “This template will help set that standard of excellence so Starkville can be looked at as a place that sets a good example for other communities.”

Note: This article originally appeared in the Commercial Dispatch on August 1, 2018.

CSTC helps create vision for Meridian’s Wechsler School

By Whitney Downard

The Meridian Star

MERIDIAN, Miss.—In recent months, the Wechsler Foundation has made strides in preserving the Wechsler School in Meridian, which was the first brick school in Mississippi built for black students using public money.

The school needs new mechanical systems and rehabilitation to bring it to its former glory, but the foundation hopes to get the community involved in plans for the school.

On Tuesday evening, the foundation invited community members, many former Wechsler students themselves, to express their hopes for the school. With the help of the Carl Small Town Center, a community design center at Mississippi State University, the foundation will develop a plan for the historic landmark using input from the meeting.

Thomas Gregory, with the Carl Small Town Center, said he, the center’s director Leah Kemp, and three students will assist in finding a shared vision among community members and Wechsler School stakeholders.

“We work with the Wechsler Foundation to come up with ideas and try to understand what the community wants to see at that site,” Gregory said. “The work that we do revolves around community involvement.”

Edward Lynch, the president of the Wechsler Foundation, said that he wanted to build something that the community needed, not something that would go unused.

“What we don’t want is to build a nice facility that nobody wants to use,” Lynch said. “Something needs to be there that people have to come to (Wechsler) to get.”

Joann Hooper, a former Wechsler student and board member, recalled some of her memories at the school, including book fairs, annual plays and a May Pole on May Day.

“The community needs to be revitalized,” Hooper said. “We don’t need people to talk, we need people to be committed.”

For Rev. Greg Moore, also a former student and board member, the neighborhood flourished with the school.

“I can name 10 accomplished professionals raised in that neighborhood,” said Moore, who lives near the school and wore a Wechsler shirt to the meeting. “The atmosphere of Wechsler exceeded Wechsler itself.”

The ten gathered community members discussed the best uses for Wechsler, debating the value of a history museum documenting Meridian’s role in the Civil Rights Movement, a business incubator, education courses or art classes.

Following the meeting, Gregory said the center would take some months to draft a final plan for the foundation to use and implement. The plan would include funding streams, alternate uses for the building and more.

“Part of our challenge is to take the myriad of ideas and find something sustainable,” Gregory said. “Obviously the community is very excited about the project and had a lot of great ideas.”

Lynch, though encouraged by the meeting, said one of the barriers to the project will be communication with the community.

“We have to develop the vision and then be able to sell the vision,” Lynch said. “We would have liked to have a few more people here but the people here were great… I think we’re really onto something.”

Kemp and Gregory present at 2018 MML Annual Conference

BILOXI, Miss.—The Carl Small Town Center’s Leah Kemp and Thomas Gregory presented at the Mississippi Municipal League’s Annual Conference in Biloxi on Tuesday, June 26.

The session, entitled, “Community Connections: Creatively Linking Key Destinations through Transit and Pedestrian Infrastructure,” discussed the impact that walkability has on a community’s health and economy.

Kemp and Gregory used case studies from successful CSTC projects in Marks, Aberdeen, and Ripley, Mississippi to illustrate the creative ways that communities have linked destinations in their towns through bike and pedestrian pathways.

The Mississippi Municipal League is a voluntary group of Mississippi cities and towns whose mission is to serve its members through legislative advocacy, benefits programs, training and educational opportunities, and multiple publications.

CSTC welcomes 2018 summer associates

Photo, from left to right: Shameen Akhtar, Felipe Olvera, and Baleigh Hull.

STARKVILLE, Miss.—The Carl Small Town Center (CSTC) at Mississippi State University is proud to welcome three summer associates who will be working in our office at Giles Hall this summer. Each associate brings a unique set of interests and skills, which will contribute to the CSTC’s design projects.

Shameen Akhtar is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst with a BFA in architecture. For the past year and a half, Shameen worked for the Master Plan Street Team in her hometown of Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she used community engagement to develop the master plan’s five areas of focus. Shameen is interested in the collaboration of public interest design and architecture.

Felipe Olvera is a native of Memphis, Tennessee and is a third year architecture student at Mississippi State University. Felipe’s interests include mass timber and passive building systems. Felipe is the public relations chair for AIAS, serves as the co-editor of BarnWorks at MSU, and served on the Freedom by Design team, which worked to build an ADA ramp for the Oktoc Community Center.

Baleigh Hull is a fourth year architecture student at Mississippi State University from Collinsville, Mississippi. Baleigh has been working for the CSTC for the past year on a variety of community design projects, including the Ripley Master Plan. Baleigh is interested in sustainable design and the use of reusable building materials. She has served as a volunteer for Clean the Stream in West Alabama.

CREATE Common Ground students implement design project in Ripley

Photo, left to right: CSTC community planner Thomas Gregory, student Rayce Belton, Mayor Chris Marsalis, student Shelby Jaco, assistant professor Silvina Lopez Barrera. Not pictured: student Nada Aziz.

RIPLEY, Miss.—Each year, a community in Northeast Mississippi is selected from a pool of applicants to participate with the Carl Small Town Center’s CREATE Common Ground class. CREATE Common Ground is the result of a partnership between the Carl Small Town Center (CSTC) at Mississippi State University and the CREATE Foundation, which began in 1998.

The course seeks to engage both students and municipal leaders in the community design process to begin thinking about design issues and opportunities. This year, assistant professor Silvina Lopez Barrerra and CSTC community planner Thomas Gregory served as instructors for the course.

Ripley, Mississippi was chosen as the 2018 CREATE Common Ground project as a result of an ongoing partnership between the Carl Small Town Center and the Ripley community. Students met with Ripley mayor Chris Marsalis and Ripley Main Street director Elizabeth Behm to identify opportunities for design interventions around the Tippah County Courthouse square.

Architecture students Nada Aziz, Rayce Belton, and Shelby Jaco developed schematic designs in early spring, which were presented to Mayor Marsalis and Ms. Behm during a community review in March.

Working with these local leaders, the team selected a narrow alley connecting a public parking lot to South Commerce Street as the site where the design intervention would be implemented. The students then combined their ideas and developed a singular design for the alley improvements.

On April 19, the students and instructors traveled to Ripley and spent the day installing handcrafted overhead light fixtures, which provide much needed light in the dark space. The students also painted a unique design on the freshly washed concrete surface to create interest.

Finally, wayfinding signage was made and sent to the City of Ripley to be affixed to the walls leading into the alley to let pedestrians know how to access the parking lot and courthouse square.

The CREATE Ripley project serves as a great example of how the design process can be used to help solve small town problems by combining creativity, hard work, and a little bit of money.

Kemp leads tour of CSTC’s Marking the Mule interpretive trail

MARKS, Miss.—As part of its weeklong celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Poor People’s Campaign, Carl Small Town Center Director Leah Kemp was invited to the community of Marks, Mississippi, to tour Martin Luther King III through the Marking the Mule interpretive trail.

Designed by the Carl Small Town Center (CSTC), the multi-modal Marking the Mule interpretive trail highlights the Marks Mule Train Civil Rights campaign, a vision of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s.

In July 2015, the CSTC was awarded a $25,000 Our Town grant by the National Endowment for the Arts to work with the community to vision a way to commemorate the historic civil rights campaign.

The yearlong public outreach campaign project engaged local residents, historians, architects and planners. The CSTC developed interpretive pedestrian and vehicle trails along with corresponding signage highlighting Civil Rights-related sites in Marks. The project also included a master plan for the designated Trailhead Park and the construction of a welcome sign showing interactive maps for new trails.

The CSTC recently received two statewide awards for its Marking the Mule project, which focused on advancing citizen engagement in the Marks community – a 2017 Public Outreach Award from the Mississippi Chapter of the American Planning Association and an AIA Design Award from the Mississippi Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

You can learn more about the Marking the Mule project on our projects page.


Ripley To Receive Comprehensive Data-Driven Vision

Photo: Ripley citizen Jerry Windham discusses plan with MSU architecture students.

by Jed Pressgrove

STARKVILLE, Miss.—NSPARC and the Carl Small Town Center at Mississippi State University have partnered to create an in-depth strategic plan for the rural town of Ripley, Mississippi.

The NSPARC-sponsored plan, which will be informed by a wide variety of data, will include a comprehensive vision for the community of Ripley, specific recommendations, and details on how to implement aspects of the plan. The document will reflect both NSPARC’s commitment to data science and the Carl Small Town Center’s dedication to community engagement within the field of architecture and design.

“This plan can help Ripley innovate and thus increase its economic competitiveness,” NSPARC Executive Director Mimmo Parisi said. “Data science will continue to play a key role in inspiring rural communities to evolve.”

“The partnership with the Carl Small Town Center and NSPARC in Ripley is the first of its kind, but one we believe to be a model for helping other communities,” Carl Small Town Center Director Leah Kemp said. “Together, we have combined our resources to offer Ripley a comprehensive analysis and vision for its community. It helps the community on so many levels, and having this service paid for by NSPARC relieves a tremendous burden for the community.”

Ripley Mayor Chris Marsalis said the need for a plan was identified during a series of discussions that he had with a county development officer about a year ago. Since then, numerous community leaders have bought into the notion of a strategic 20-year vision to address the various needs of the town.

“I can’t really place a value on it,” Marsalis said. “Without this arrangement [with NSPARC and the Carl Small Town Center], we would not be able to receive this type of detailed direction for the town.”

Carl Small Town Center community planner Thomas Gregory said his team has spent several months communicating with the Ripley community about its needs. The dialogue started with a meeting of community leaders and representatives who identified broad needs, such as downtown design, transportation, and community appearance.

“We worked with the Ripley community to select this group of stakeholders that represented all aspects of the community,” Gregory said.

The Carl Small Town Center then had an open meeting with the community that was attended by about 35 people who grouped specific issues and solutions under the broad needs identified during the meeting described above. Gregory said these meetings reflect a bottom-up approach to plan development.

“Community engagement is at the heart of what we do in communities across the state,” he said. “We like to think of the plan as being developed by the community, with technical assistance provided by the Carl Small Town Center. We are the facilitators of the visioning and planning process.”

Marsalis said there are many facets to Ripley that have to be thought about as a whole and as individual details. This complexity speaks to the importance of having expert help, especially in a non-urban setting.

“It’s a holistic approach to small-town operations,” Marsalis said. “The Carl Small Town Center brings architectural and planning expertise that small towns don’t have compared to big cities.”

Both NSPARC and the Carl Small Town Center think Ripley’s future will be brighter than ever.

“This project will give Ripley the knowledge and the tools to transform their ideas into reality,” Parisi said. “That’s what data can do for any community.”

“Once the new comprehensive plan is finished in summer 2018, the community will be able to leverage grants and other funding to implement the projects outlined in the plan, ultimately bringing economic success to the overall community,” Kemp said.