It’s not the top award, but it is one of the big three.
The cheers of the crowd at Gnat’s Landing watching the America’s Best Communities grand prize ceremony live on screen drowned out the audio from Denver when Vince Gill announced that Statesboro has won $ 1 million for the Blue Mile revitalization of South Main Street.
The $2 million second prize went to Lake Havasu City, Arizona. The $3 million, first prize winner is Huntington, West Virginia. Wednesday’s awards program began at 7 p.m. Eastern Time, but it was 5 p.m. in Colorado, where Gill, the Country Music Hall of Fame performer, appeared on stage with representatives of the ABC competition’s corporate sponsors.
“It’s incredible excitement and joy that all the hard work and the years that we’ve put into this, that the team has put into this, have finally paid dividends and we’re seeing the seed money to really make the vision a reality,” Blue Mile Committee member Bob Mikell told reporters.
Remaining in Statesboro, Mikell served as the committee’s spokesman during a “watch party” for the ceremony. RJ’s Grill, Little Italy Pizza, 3 Tree Coffee Roasters and Gnat’s all hosted screenings, also calling attention to the survival and a hoped resurgence of the restaurant trade on the Blue Mile of South Main Street.
“I think downtown has a lot of good things going, and there’s a lot of restaurants showing interest to come down here, and if we can just keep getting people to come this way, I think we’ve got a good thing going,” said Gnat’s Landing owner Al Chapman III. “But it’s important that we do the right things and keep it moving in the right direction as a community.”
The blue glow of the Blue Mile Gateway signs is visible from his business’ patio at night, and watch for a seated statue of historic “Statesboro Blues” musician “Blind Willie” McTell coming soon to a bench outside the Statesboro Convention and Visitors Bureau. These, and the way-finder signs directing visitors to downtown locations and parking, are some of the first elements of the Blue Mile plan to be realized.
Besides targeting South Main Street for public art, landscaping, and sidewalk improvements, the plan calls for park projects and development of new and affordable housing in neighborhoods on either side of the corridor. Attracting businesses and visitors are central goals.
The Blue Mile is South Main Street, a part of U.S. Highway 301, from Georgia Southern University’s original main entrance to the Bulloch County Courthouse. The area went through decades of decline after tourist and business travelers shifted to interstate highways. But beginning almost five years ago, volunteers, including business leaders, representatives of the city and county governments and the university, began efforts to bring new life to the corridor.
Other funding sources
After a majority of voters approved in a referendum, the city created a tax allocation district around South Main Street, effective since January 2015. The TAD legislation commits any property tax growth from construction, improvements or rising values to public projects in the district.
With the $1 million win, the city of Statesboro also secures a commitment of $450,000 in Georgia Department of Transportation funding for sidewalks, curbs and drainage improvements on the Blue Mile. In a Feb. 15 letter to Mayor Jan Moore, GDOT Commissioner Russell R. McMurry , a Georgia Southern alumnus, made the funding contingent on other sources covering at least 30 percent of the costs and on Statesboro winning one of the ABC grand prizes.
“I think that this prize will be the catalyst that this movement down South Main needed and the whole tax allocation district needed to kick off redevelopment down here,” Moore said Wednesday evening. “I mean, I know that’s what’s going to happen. We needed something to get people interested in this area, and not just hear about it but literally interested in it being successful, and that’s what this will do.”
The team representing Statesboro in Denver consisted of Blue Mile Committee co-chairs Darron Burnette and Keely Fennell, 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.
Frontier Communications, CoBank, Dish Network and the Weather Channel committed $10 million to the competition to promote development projects in rural communities across the United States. Frontier was the lead sponsor, and eligible communities were those with populations between 9,500 and 80,000 in its service areas. Cities, counties and various combinations entered in the fall of 2014.
“I am just beyond excited to learn that all of the hard work, the dedication, the team work, just seeing so many entities come together and work together as a great team, has pushed us into that third place … to bring home that $1 million,” said Jaclyn Cason, Frontier Communications local manager in Statesboro.
“It’s just fantastic,” she said, “and to see all the change that we’ve seen on South Main so far, I can’t wait to see what’s in the future.”
She and Mikell noted that the third-place win is out of more than 350 communities that entered.
They were narrowed first to 50 quarterfinalists, each of which received $50,000 to spend on developing their plans. One year ago, when the eight finalists were named, each received $100,000 more to continue planning and begin work on identified projects.
Competition judges reportedly selected the three winners on the basis of progress reports and revised plans. No sales pitch like the one that three representatives of Statesboro’s Blue Mile gave in Durham, North Carolina, for the previous round in April 2016 was required Wednesday.
But representatives of each of the eight communities appeared on stage to talk about highlights of their plans, progress made and challenges ahead.
In Denver, Thompson wielded a cup of sweet, iced tea as a symbol of the only ABC finalist community in the Deep South. At Monday’s sendoff rally here, she had referred to all supporters of the plan as part of the team.
“No matter what happens, I cannot wait to come back to this team, get my feet back on Bulloch County soil and say that our plan, the Blue Mile, is a success,” Thompson said.
The other five finalists were the Chisago Lakes area of Minnesota; Arlington-Darrington in the state of Washington; Madison, Indiana; Tualatin, Oregon; and Valley County, Idaho.