A giant inflatable Gus the Eagle loomed near the very blue-hued sendoff celebration for Statesboro's five-member team who will attend the America's Best Communities grand prize ceremony Wednesday in Denver.
Musicians from the Southeast Bulloch High School Swarm marching band, who wore blue as they often do, played pep tunes while cheerleaders from Southeast and Bulloch Academy and several live-action mascots added to the rah-rah mood Monday morning.
"Look at the community support! You guys rock, Statesboro!" Keely Fennell, one of the two Blue Mile Committee co-chairs, greeted the crowd.
She is a business owner, and Statesboro's business community was prominently represented. But the celebration, at Jones Lane Park across the Blue Mile from Sweetheart Circle, was almost on Georgia Southern University's front porch.
"Our citizens represent the very best traits of small-town America," said university President Jaimie Hebert. "Statesboro is friendly, but it's industrious and it's committed to growth. Our citizens work with the university, and they love this university with a rare devotion. Georgia Southern would always be committed to Statesboro and Bulloch County in the same manner."
The away team taking an early Tuesday flight consists of Fennell and fellow co-chair Darron Burnette, Statesboro-Bulloch Chamber of Commerce President Phyllis Thompson, Downtown Statesboro Development Authority Executive Director Allen Muldrew and GS Vice President for University Advancement and External Affairs Trip Addison.
Live 7 p.m. Wednesday
Local people watching live video of the awards ceremony Wednesday at 7 p.m. Eastern Time won't have to wait to find out whether Statesboro wins a top prize of $3 million, $2 million or $1 million. Blue Mile Committee member Bob Mikell, remaining in Statesboro as the team's spokesman, reports that Gnat's Landing, 3 Tree Coffee Roasters and RJ's Grill, all in the Blue Mile, will stream the event on screens for the public.
He called it a "Blue Mile block party" and plans to watch at Gnat's.
The live video also will be available through www.statesboroherald.com and the America's Best Communities page on Facebook.
The Blue Mile is the stretch of South Main Street, also part of U.S. Highway 301, from the university's original main entrance to the Bulloch County Courthouse. Besides targeting South Main itself for sidewalk and landscaping improvements, art projects and recruitment of new businesses and visitors, the Blue Mile plan calls for park projects and private for-profit and nonprofit development of new and affordable housing in neighborhoods on either side of the corridor.
Any prizes are required to be spent on projects in the scope of the plan.
Georgia Southern's links to the Blue Mile are more than ceremonial. The university has budgeted up to $500,000 to develop a lighted, artificially surfaced footpath as a continuation from the existing trail that runs beside the Herty Woods, the forested area to the left of Southern Drive when approaching Sweetheart Circle.
The trail extension will begin where the current trail ends near the GS softball facility and lead to the sidewalk on South Main near the Blue Mile Gateway signs, Addison said in an interview.
"This is a university wholly-funded project," he said.
In other words, it will not require America's Best Community contest winnings. That was also the case with the gateway signs. The committee collected donations for their construction.
Addison's participation in the away team represents Georgia Southern's close "town-gown relationship" with Statesboro and Bulloch County, he said. Through the Blue Mile effort, the university is working to increase its appeal to students, faculty and staff who want to live in a community "that is inviting and has activities and amenities they enjoy," he added.
So, the Blue Mile's revitalization "could benefit not only the town but have great benefits to the institution as we try to sell this institution for growth," Addison said.
Speakers at Monday's rally included Fennell as emcee, Mikell, Phyllis Thompson, U.S. Rep. Rick Allen and Statesboro Mayor Jan Moore. Agape Worship Center Pastor Donald Shavers Jr. gave the invocation.
"We're already winners," Bulloch County Board of Commissioners Chairman Roy Thompson said, suggesting that Blue Mile team members pat themselves on the back, whatever Wednesday's outcome.
Several speakers struck that same chord.
"While the title and the money may be great, and we know we're going to get a title and we know we're going to get money, what the last two and a half years has shown us is that we truly are a community that works together, that the ordinary can become extraordinary," Moore said. "We are already winners. A sincere movement to redevelop our downtown, both residential and commercial, has taken flight."
Frontier Communications, CoBank, Dish Network and the Weather Channel committed $10 million to the competition to promote development projects in communities with 50,000 or fewer people across the United States. Statesboro previously received $50,000 as a quarterfinalist and $100,000 as a finalist as the more than 350 entries were narrowed first to 50, then to 15, and one year ago to eight.
The other seven contenders are the Chisago Lakes area of Minnesota; Arlington-Darrington in the state of Washington; Huntington, West Virginia; Lake Havasu City, Arizona; Madison, Indiana; Tualatin, Oregon; and Valley County, Idaho.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.