As the deadline approaches for a final progress report in the America's Best Communities competition, Statesboro's Blue Mile committee is pointing to evidence of forward momentum in corporate, residential and commercial development.
The monumental Blue Mile signs greeting northbound visitors entering the 1.1-mile stretch of South Main Street, a statue of Statesboro Blues musician "Blind Willie" McTell nearing completion and a planned dog park grab attention as projects funded by contest prizes, donors and public agencies. But investments by AgSouth Farm Credit, the Statesboro Herald's parent company and residential rental developer Hendley Properties have added private-sector substance to recent updates.
Since the January opening of Little Italy, Blue Mile Committee spokespersons have also touted the renewed interest of restaurant chains in South Main.
"The buzz we've generated in the Blue Mile has inspired others to invest in the Blue Mile, which is the whole point," said committee member Bob Mikell. "It's a snowball effect, to successfully sell their success."
Mikell, who is a local attorney, and Statesboro-Bulloch Chamber of Commerce President Phyllis Thompson spoke to the Bulloch County Board of Education two weeks ago. Mikell shared a similar report Thursday with American Legion Dexter Allen Post 90.
A new Herald Square?
One of the private investments he highlighted is the Statesboro Herald's purchase of the Maxway commercial center and adjoining property on Proctor Street. The decision was made by Charles H. Morris, president and CEO of Morris Multimedia, the Herald's parent company.
"He wants to find out a way to use that to benefit the community, similar to what he has done with Trustees' Garden and (the Morris Center) in Savannah, kind of near River Street," Mikell said. "He purchased that and made it an event space. We want to do something similar. ‘Herald Square' has been thrown around as an idea."
Mikell said this is exciting to see and that he believes it was "the buzz," surrounding the ABC competition and downtown revitalization that interested Morris in this location. Morris has not announced any specific plans for the site, but Statesboro Herald Operations Manager Jim Healy is hosting 9-10 a.m. open-door coffee conversations each Tuesday and Thursday in the Statesboro Herald building to gather ideas from the community.
AgSouth on the move
AgSouth Farm Credit's plans to consolidate its three legacy corporate headquarters to a single corporate campus in Statesboro, touching directly on South Main Street in the Blue Mile, are much further developed.
The farmer-owned financial services cooperative with 24 branches and $1.7 billion in assets has previously maintained headquarters in Orangeburg and Spartanburg, South Carolina, as well as in Statesboro. The plans to expand its offices here as the sole headquarters were announced last fall.
With this move, AgSouth will be "adding immediately 26 new high-paying jobs," and potentially up to 76 jobs here, said Mikell, who represented the company when its plans were presented to City Council.
A planned new training, meeting and employee building, further back on East Vine Street, will combine with AgSouth's two existing buildings to surround on three sides a park-like space with trees, grass, planters and walkways in a cross-and-oval pattern.
"They're building a brand-new, two-story building there that will have meeting space, as well as some green space with possible places for the Farmers' Market," Mikell told the school board. "So that's exciting; that's all happening on the Blue Mile."
AgSouth's project is now in the bid phase. The cooperative's leadership hopes to finish bid negotiations "in short order" and begin construction soon, AgSouth CEO Pat Calhoun said Monday.
110 residential units
Community and business leaders launched a drive for South Main revitalization from a Chamber of Commerce planning retreat in 2012. So planning by a South Main Revitalization Committee was underway for a year before Statesboro learned about the America's Best Communities competition.
Since the planning got underway, the area around South Main has experienced "incredible strides," particularly in residential redevelopment, Mikell said.
"This area, before this project, was decreasing in population, and we've reversed that and added 110 new residents to downtown Statesboro," he told the school board.
This, he said in follow-up, is an "at least" count of the occupants, from a conservative estimate of new and completely renovated residential units from Bryan Davis, property manager for Hendley Properties.
Ray Hendley's company, which renovates some existing homes and builds new one- and two-bedroom rental homes targeted to graduate students, young professionals and retirees, has been responsible for most of the added residents.
But a few other private developers and the Downtown Statesboro Development Authority also have been involved, Mikell noted.
So has Habitat for Humanity. Mikell, now president of Habitat for Humanity of Bulloch County, has advocated for the nonprofit to build new homes for low- and moderate-income homeowners in the Blue Mile corridor. Two Habitat homes were completed there last year.
The Blue Mile Committee also established a neighborhood revitalization subcommittee and surveyed residents of the area about quality of life issues and needs.
Darron Burnette and Keely Fennell are the Blue Mile Committee's co-chairs. But Mikell and Thompson are two of the three team members who pitched the plan in front of America's Best Communities judges last April in Durham, N.C., where Statesboro was awarded $100,000 as one of the eight finalists nationwide. In 2015, Statesboro was first awarded $50,000, as one of 50 quarterfinalists, to spend on its planning and projects.
By the way, no prize money or public money was spent on the Blue Mile gateway signs, which were funded 100 percent from donations, the committee members said. Donations totaling $130,000 were collected, and not all was spent on the gateway arch, leaving some for other projects.
No in-person pitch is required for the championship round. But final progress reports are due March 29 as the finalists vie for the $3 million first prize, $2 million second prize and $1 million third prize, with winners to be announced April 19.
More than 350 communities, all with 50,000 or fewer people, initially entered the competition sponsored by Frontier Communications, Dish Network, CoBank and the Weather Channel.
Site Selection magazine, in its March edition, named Statesboro one of the nation's top 78 micropolitan areas and specifically mentioned its activities in the ABC contest, Thompson reported. The magazine, targeted to people who select sites for industries, is available at http://siteselection.com/issues/2017/mar.
"It's not just a pretty-face contest; it's economic development; how about that! ... " Thompson said. "This contest has led our project to really be jump-started beyond what we could ever have imagined."
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.