STARKVILLE, Miss.--Mississippi State's land-grant tradition of service through learning and research was recently recognized by a $25,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant benefitting the city of Leland.
Officials with the university's landscape architecture program and John C. Stennis Institute of Government and Community Development collaborated with counterparts in the Washington County municipality and its Jim Henson Museum to apply for an "Our Town" grant.
Joan Shigekaw, NEA acting chair, said these awards fund community projects designed to improve quality of life through creative placemaking. The grant will be used to develop the Creative Park, to be located along the shores of Deer Creek where the Muppets creator may have first imagined Kermit the Frog.
Joe Fratesi, Stennis project director; Jeremy Murdock, Stennis research associate; and Taze Fulford, MSU associate professor of landscape architecture, were instrumental in securing the selective grant. Of the 59 awarded communities, Leland is the only one in Mississippi and one of just seven first-time grantees with populations under 5,000.
"Being the land-grant institution that we are, it is our mission and our privilege to work with Leland and offer assistance in landscape architecture and community planning," Fratesi said. "That expertise, combined with the institute's ability to identify what resources the university can provide, is just another good example of the university engaging the community."
MSU faculty and administrators have forged a long-term partnership with Leland leaders, he explained. After Stennis representatives completed a community assessment in 2012, Fratesi and Murdock invited Fulford's landscape architecture design studio to assist the community by addressing the design-related challenges the assessment identified.
The students toured the community and developed ideas for a master plan. Students focused plans on the site along Deer Creek, and their emphasis on that area inspired Fratesi, Fulford and Murdock to apply for the grant, Fratesi said.
"When the students got there, they just sat down and started sketching ideas along the creek," Fulford said. "They really fell in love with the site and came up with a lot of different types of design, from geometric to organic forms. The more we looked at the site, the more we all realized the creek is the lynchpin."
Deer Creek is the center of Leland, Murdock said. Not only is the Jim Henson Museum nearby, a school is also quite close. Additionally, a floating Christmas parade has been held on Deer Creek for more than 45 years, and many residents fish there.
"Deer Creek links the entire town, and it's the best spot for a community space--a space they can use and enjoy while creating a city-wide amenity," he said.
Fulford said he is excited about the site's potential to become an ecological park which informs residents and other park visitors about the need to protect water.
"It's going to be a great place, right in the heart of the community, to teach about why we need to protect water," he said.
MSU's long-term collaboration with Leland is special, Murdock said, because the residents there are invested in improving their community.
"There's passion in Leland; people there know they can make a difference," Fulford agreed. "They want to see their community improve, and when we find those little spaces that want to be special, that's where we spend our effort."
Fulford, Fratesi and Murdock recruited 1986 MSU alumnus Robert Poore, landscape architect, to develop a design for the Creative Park, Fratesi said. Poore is a principal of Native Habitats, a Flora-based landscape architecture firm.
Because community input will be critical, a series of design charettes, or collaborative planning sessions, will be held to establish the community's vision for the park, Fulford said. Once the design is finalized, Fratesi and Murdock will assist Leland leaders in developing an implementation strategy.
Fratesi said the city already has set aside some money to supplement the grant award, but more will need to be raised.
Park features will include pathways, seating and a feature piece of art, he said. Also, an abandoned city-owned building could become an additional exhibit space for the Henson Museum.
"This project is about teaching and learning through research and service," Fratesi said. "It's all about making Leland a better place and making a difference.
"All of us want to see Mississippi communities succeed, and this has been another great project that's making that happen."