Voices lilting, Statesboro’s team invoked a town and university relationship going back to 1906 and a Blue Mile that will feature a local Stars Walk in the home of the Statesboro Blues. After revealing an America’s Best Communities medallion freshly 3D-printed at the soon-to-open local Innovation Incubator, one of the three team members capped the pitch with an invitation to sweet iced tea.
After also seeing the Blue Mile plan in detail, the judges at the America’s Best Communities Summit in Durham, N.C., on Wednesday chose Statesboro as one of eight finalist communities. Now $100,000 is coming back to continue with the plan for reinvigorating South Main Street, and Statesboro remains in the running for up to $3 million more.
“This is phenomenal, just being up here, I’m so proud to live in Statesboro, Georgia, and our team just did awesome,” Sea Island Bank President Darron Burnette said on the phone. “It’s unmeasurable. We’re driving back this evening and we’re going to feel like we’re flying, you know, just because it’s such a great thing with where this could put us.”
Burnette and Keely Fennell of NeSmith Construction together lead the independent South Main Street Revitalization Committee. It was formed after South Main was identified as a top priority at a community planning retreat hosted by the Statesboro Bulloch Chamber of Commerce in 2012.
They made the trip to support the pitch team, made up of Chamber of Commerce President Phyllis Thompson, local attorney Bob Mikell, and in her last week in the role, Statesboro Planning and Development Director Mandi Cody. These three took turns at the microphone to make the pitch and answer questions, somewhat like entrepreneurs on the TV show “Shark Tank.”
Corporate sponsors Frontier Communications, Dish Network, CoBank and the Weather Channel committed $10 million to the competition to encourage innovative thinking and fund redevelopment projects. When it began two years ago, more than 350 communities nationwide entered. Statesboro advanced as the field narrowed to 50 quarterfinalists, then 15 semifinalists, and now, eight finalists.
Burnette expressed gratitude to Jacklyn Cason, Frontier Communications’ Statesboro general manager, for telling the South Main Committee about the competition.
“Jaclyn let us know about this competition that could help us advance our revitalization project. …That’s been the blessing,” Burnette said. “We had a plan we had been working on for a couple of years, but this helped us push it forward and share our ideas.”
On stage, the team presented the Blue Mile as the latest example of local cooperation linking downtown Statesboro with Georgia Southern University and its 20,000-plus students.
After working together for a century “to make Statesboro the educational hub of rural South Georgia,” community and university “have teamed up once again to tackle one of the biggest challenges facing … many rural communities across the country, a struggling downtown core,” Mikell told the judges.
Local people soon realized, he said, that simply beautifying South Main Street would not be enough.
“We’ve broadened our focus to include the surrounding neighborhoods that face issues of poverty and limited access to services and opportunity,” Mikell said.
Housing in the Blue Mile, the team said, is already being developed and renovated by Habitat for Humanity, by the Homes for Heroes program of the Downtown Statesboro Development Authority and by private developers.
The team outlined the plan to “reclaim” the Blue Mile as a place that people want to live, “regain” its economic health and “return,” as Mikell put it, “its identity as the cultural and economic hub of our nine-county, rural South Georgia region.”
As a destination, he said, downtown is anchored by the Averitt Center for the Arts, which puts on more than 50 performances a year, attracting 86,000 visitors and serves more than 600 children a week in afterschool programs and art classes.
The big plan
If fully funded, the plan will create a park with an outdoor stage, plus a sheltered area as a permanent home for the Main Street Farmers Market. Smaller park spaces will be built along the corridor, and brick paver sidewalks installed. Decorative archways will be erected over the redesigned highway. Utility lines along the corridor will be buried, eliminating the need for poles.
The Statesboro Stars Walk will be a pedestrian path through the Blue Mile with monuments honoring notable past and present Statesboro residents.
But all of this would take more than the $1 million third prize, $2 million second prize, or $3 million first prize that three of the eight finalist communities will receive 11 months from now.
The tax allocation district, or TAD, authorized by Statesboro voters and in effect since January 2015 is one source of additional funding. New property tax revenue resulting from construction, renovations or rising values is set aside for public infrastructure spending within the district. The city and other local organizations are also seeking federal and state grants.
The short term
But in the next 11 months, the community is expected to make a start on its plan, using the $100,000 now awarded, plus $50,000 awarded in the quarterfinal round along with a $15,000 required local commitment provided by the Averitt Center and the Downtown Statesboro Development Authority, or DSDA.
Earlier this year, the city of Statesboro took control of the initial $65,000 and contracted with EMC Engineering to begin drawing specific plans.
Now, with the latest prize money, local planners hope to hire a branding and recruitment firm to help fill vacant commercial spaces and begin marketing the Blue Mile as a shopping and entertainment destination, Cody said.
But the 11-month timeline also includes an announcement concerning the Stars Walk. The first, or gateway, arch on the southern approach to the Blue Mile is a feature planners hope to see realized in the next 11 months. Another is the addition of more way-finder signs, to Blue Mile destinations, like two already installed on East and West Main Streets.
Thompson closed the pitch. Noting that Statesboro was the only semifinalist community in the Southeast, she suggested that the plan for the Blue Mile could address challenges that are common among towns of the rural South.
“Together, we can make it a place that our current homeowners want to call home, newcomers want to embrace and visitors see as a destination to discover and explore, maybe over a glass of sweet iced tea,” she said.
At the conclusion of the awards, Maggie Wilderotter, former CEO of Frontier Communications, announced that the seven semifinalist communities not chosen as finalists were being awarded $25,000 each and encouraged to continue with their plans. Country music star Vince Gill accompanied her on stage as the ABC competition’s celebrity spokesman.
“All 15 contestants were admirable with great plans and ideas, but Statesboro had put together what we considered a solid plan, an executable plan, an achievable plan that will be successful, and Frontier and the judges for the America’s Best Communities agreed with our presentation,” said DSDA Executive Director Allen Muldrew, who also made the trip to Durham.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.