LELAND, Miss. -- Echoes of Delta Blues greats Sonny Boy Nelson and Charlie Booker pulse along the shores of Deer Creek, where Muppet-creator Jim Henson imagined Kermit the Frog.
Trains once steamed through downtown Leland, where cottonseed oil production was one of the most profitable industries. Even though it was a small Delta town, commercial and agricultural businesses thrived.
As the years passed, Jim Henson left, cottonseed oil production stopped and even Delta blues music seemed to be disappearing from the town.
Not content with what was happening, residents decided to act. To attract more tourists, they helped develop museums and festivals to celebrate Delta blues history, Kermit the Frog and Jim Henson. As a result, new restaurants and other businesses sprang up as Delta residents began talking about Leland again and wanted to visit.
Next, community leaders commissioned Mississippi State University to help develop some 21st century concepts for making Leland an even more appealing place. Thus, the university's John C. Stennis Institute of Government and Community Development completed a community assessment, said Joe Fratesi, Stennis Institute community development director.
With that feedback, town leaders invited MSU's landscape architecture senior design class, taught by MSU associate professor Taze Fulford, to tour the town and develop ideas for a community master plan.
"These partnerships embody what Mississippi State is about -- learning, research and service -- and it's what makes our university great," Fratesi explained. "We're bringing different people together to impact a community.
"Academic learning is happening in Fulford's class, and the students' research is not only in analyzing the community, but they're also researching community design and the different materials they're using. Then, service: This isn't an isolated classroom experience. The students are going to take this to the Leland community so they can gain from it."
He praised Leland's elected officials, business leaders and community organizations for coming together with the common interest of building up their community.
"An important consideration was keeping Leland authentic," he said. "The people of Leland want to focus on improving the community appearance and creating a sense of place."
While in town, the students met with municipal and chamber of commerce representatives, as well as others from the Lion's Club and Rotary clubs. They also visited the established tourist attractions during a walking tour.
"The people of Leland are genuinely interested in their community and want to help in any way they can to make it better," Fulford observed. "Landscape architecture focuses on creating places where people want to live, work and play, so people can really be proud of their community. Leland has lots of opportunities."
The landscape architecture majors will present their suggestions to Leland officials in late November. Then, it will be up to the community to decide what it will do next, he added.
From the abandoned railroad line edging Leland to the creek running straight through the town, the students will be presenting ways to link everything in the community together, Fulford said.
"Students are looking at the context of the place: the architecture, the lay of the land, the activities going on there. The big picture of the site will help the students decide which materials and plants will complement the climate and the culture. We take all those things into consideration," Fulford said.
Whatever Leland chooses, the real-world scenarios students are developing are helping to train them for successful careers, Fulford and Fratesi stressed. As for MSU, the Stennis Institute and the department of landscape architecture are committed to using their expertise to benefit Mississippi towns.
"We want to grow this into more projects," Fulford said. "In the long term, we'd like to see two of these projects each semester."
MSU students participating in the Leland project, by hometown, are:
BRANDON -- Senior William "Bennett" Smithhart, son of William and Dovie Smithhart.
BRANDON -- Senior Christopher "Chris" Vampran, son of Mark and Ginny Vampran of Jackson.
BRANDON -- Senior Clint Wycoff, son of Craig and Melinda Wycoff.
BYRAM -- Senior Hannah Phillips, daughter of Keith and Ginny Phillips.
COLLIERVILLE, Tenn. -- Senior Daniel Fulton, son of Robert and Lynda Fulton.
COLUMBIA -- Senior Andrew Gray, son of James and Debbie Gray.
COVINGTON, La. -- Senior Samuel "Sam" Hawkins, son of Samuel and Jo Hawkins.
FLORENCE -- Junior Casey Mayne, son of Jeff and Teresa Mayne.
FRANKLIN, Tenn. -- Junior Edward "Ted" Benge, son of Kenneth and Laura Benge.
GERMANTOWN, Tenn. -- Senior Jessica "Taylor" Duncan, daughter of Charles and Miriam Duncan.
HERNANDO -- Senior William "Will" Stockton, son of Kenneth and Karla Stockton.
MADISON -- Senior Cameron Cooper, son of Christopher and Terri Cooper.
MANTEE -- Senior Jason Treloar. (No parent information available.)
METAMORA, Ill. -- Senior Cameron McDonald, son of Brian and Janet McDonald.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Senior Skyler Wade, son of Carl and Suzanne Wade.
NATCHEZ -- Senior Lauren Doherty, daughter of Shawn and Sandra Doherty.
PASCAGOULA -- Senior Jerry Hill, son of Frank Hill and Delorse Hill.
PENSACOLA, Fla. -- Senior Matthew "Matt" Gross, son of Edward and Roxanne Gross.
RIDGELAND -- Senior Jordan Lohman, son of Jeffrey and Melodye Lohman.
SIGNAL MOUNTAIN, Tenn. -- Junior Samuel "Logan" Waddell, son of Jeff and Kathryne Waddell.
STARKVILLE -- Senior Devlon Ward, son of Abby Ward.
SUFFIELD, Conn. -- Senior Brian Gracey, son of John Gracey.
VARDAMAN -- Senior Justin Spratlin, son of Jody and Kimberley Spratlin.
For more information about services for communities sponsored by Stennis Institute and MSU Department of Landscape Architecture, contact Fratesi at 662-325-6703 or firstname.lastname@example.org.