Officials of the Bulloch County and Statesboro city governments are proposing to direct up to $2 million in pandemic-related federal relief money toward building a permanent home for the Statesboro Food Bank.
Half of that sum would come from commitments of up to $500,000 by the county and another $500,000 by the city out of the funds they are receiving under the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, the second, $1.9 trillion, federal stimulus package. The county stands to get $15.4 million in ARPA money and already received half of it this year. The city is slated to get $12.3 million and also already received half. So together, they have the first $1 million already in hand.
Then the county would apply for the other $1 million from a special Community Development Block Grant. Federal CDBG money is channeled through the states every year and available to Georgia cities and counties through competitive applications evaluated by the state Department of Community Affairs. But this is a special round of funding, with applications due Dec. 10, from leftover funds from the first pandemic-related economic relief package.
“You can talk about jobs and job training and other types of human services help all you want, but if you don’t have food you don’t have anything – you know, that’s sustenance – so if we can’t help out with food insecurity then we’re falling down, and the Statesboro Food Bank, they have a track record,” County Manager Tom Couch said in a phone interview. “We want them to succeed and be able to expand their services, and we’re trying to facilitate that.”
This proposal hasn’t been put to the county Board of Commissioners for a vote. But Couch acknowledged Wednesday that he has had “soft discussions with individual commissioners” and that he and Statesboro City Manager Charles Penny have been “working behind the scenes” on the details with the board of directors of The Food Bank Inc.
“I feel confident that we’re going to get the commissioners to help the Food Bank out because quite frankly, they’ve got a story to tell,” Couch said, referring to the local food pantry ‘s “displacement” from its current home.
As reported earlier this year, The Food Bank Inc., a Statesboro-based Georgia nonprofit corporation and federally tax-exempted charity, stands to lose its current location in the old Julia P. Bryant Elementary School buildings at 400 Donnie Simmons Way.
The Bulloch County Board of Education agreed in March to sell 10.5 acres of the 15-acre campus to a subsidiary of W.H. Gross Construction Company of Kingsland. The company’s owner, Bill Gross, plans to create a senior-living community, converting three of the old school’s buildings for use as apartments and adding several new residential structures.
In exchange for the property, Gross agreed to remove some buildings from the portion of the campus the school district is keeping and also pay the district $400,000. However, the sale remains contingent on his obtaining federal and state tax credits to fund the first phase of the project, which would contain 51 apartments.
He expects to hear in October or November whether the tax credits have been approved. If not, the sales contract remains valid through next year, when he could apply again.
Gym as backup?
So the timeline for the move remains indefinite. The food bank could remain at its current portion of the old school until late next spring, perhaps May or June, Gross said on the phone Friday.
If needed after that, his company could also allow the use the old school’s gymnasium, at the other end of the campus, as a temporary food bank location, he told the Statesboro Herald. The gym wouldn’t become part of his planned development until the second phase, which he would not start for another year or two.
“We want to do whatever we need to do. We’re not going to leave them stranded. …,” Gross said. “Listen, I’m very community-minded. They provide a great service, and we don’t want to impede that in any way.”
The Food Bank will probably need a temporary location if the first phase of Gross’ project moves forward. Word on the CDBG grant would be expected in March, after which construction of the food bank building could begin in the late spring or early summer, Couch said.
It should take “conservatively, with a competent architect and contractor, and weather permitting , 12-15 months to complete,” Couch replied in an email. “Or less, if there are no issues.”
Officials are looking at a prospective site they were not ready to reveal this week.
To remain in city
Penny, the city manager, has indicated that the city government will place two conditions on supplying $500,000 from its ARPA cash for the project.
“Our concern is we wanted to keep the Food Bank inside the city limits, and this is also based upon the county matching what we put up,” he said.
The mayor and City Council haven’t formally approved the proposal, either. But they voiced no objections when Penny described the proposed commitment as part of an outline for the use of all $12.3 million of the city’s ARPA funds he presented Sept. 7. The $500,000 was listed as addressing “food insecurities,” but “up to” that amount would all go for the building, Penny said.
“The building would have to be owned by the county for some years, but what we want to do for the Food Bank is to provide a building that there’s no payments due on it at the end, that it’s free and clear so they’re not having to struggle to worry about mortgage payments ,” he said.
After being owned by a county authority for at least five and no more than 10 years, the building could be deeded to Food Bank Inc., Couch said. Until then, it would be leased to the charity for a nominal rent, such as $1 a year, or basically free, he said. That is the same nothing rent the Board of Education has charged the food bank for space at two different former schools over the past decade.
In fact, the Statesboro Food Bank has occupied at least three different “temporary” buildings since it was founded.
Jodi Brannon, current Food Bank Inc. operations director, said the joint city-county proposal could fulfill a longstanding dream of her father, the late Joe Bill Brannon. He died in June 2020 after more than 25 years as a Statesboro Food Bank volunteer, much of that time as its full-time acting director.
”This will be a permanent home for the food bank, if everything goes well, and you know that was what my father was always looking for, always wanting, a permanent home for the food bank, somewhere that would meet our needs to keep doing what we’re doing,” Jodi Brannon said. “So I hope that what we’ve done over the past two years has maybe spotlighted the organization and made us worthwhile to consider to use these funds for.
“I can’t think of a better use for it myself,” she said, “to have something in Bulloch County that it will belong here for as long as it’s needed. I don’t think we’re going to hit utopia anytime soon where there won’t be a need food banks for people who are struggling.”
While some other social services organizations shut down in 2020 because of the pandemic , Statesboro Food Bank remained open, switching to curbside, drive-through distributions. With increased support from donors, the organization avoided having a delay of services “when needs were at their greatest,” she said. Demand quickly multiplied from early 2020, when the food bank was serving about 350 people a month, to about 800 people a month through the fall.
The numbers fell after the federal relief programs took effect, but have since climbed again, with the food bank serving about 450 people this month, by Brannon’s estimates.
“We’ve been so blessed to have the community support, that being the support of the local United Way and churches and businesses, not to mention just caring individuals who are aware of our mission to make sure that nobody goes hungry,” she said.
Even if it moves into a new building, the food bank will need the continued support of donors and volunteers, she said. Food Bank Inc., which has just two directly paid employees, will be responsible for its utility bills, equipment and routine maintenance costs, in addition to maintaining food stocks.