More than 50 people, including business owners, civic leaders and city officials, met last Thursday evening to explore ideas for revitalizing South Main Street.
Just inside the door of the meeting room at the Quality Inn, a concept board displayed visions of a South Main where vacant restaurants and other evidence of decline have been replaced by symbols of fresh uses. Envisioned features range from a facelift for the bridge over Little Lotts Creek to illuminated islands promoting the work of Georgia artists, sculptures of musicians playing and an outdoor amphitheater.
Specific elements such as these remain mere possibilities. But the eight or 10 organizations that worked together to form a South Main Revitalization Team in 2013 do have clear general goals, said Statesboro-Bulloch Chamber of Commerce Chairman Keely Fennell.
"There is a vision," Fennell said. "We want tooccupy vacant buildings; we want to improve the existing state of the buildings that are there; we want to get rid of any buildings that are deemed unsalvageable. We also want to improve the streetscape, meaning planters, benches, possible flags, new light poles, from a beautification aspect."
For visitors and others unfamiliar, South Main Street is U.S. Highway 301 from the Georgia Southern University entrances to the courthouse. Early in 2013, Community Leadership Conference participants named South Main as a priority. The Bulloch County government and city of Statesboro, the university, the chamber, the Statesboro Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Development Authority of Bulloch County, the Downtown Statesboro Development Authority and the school system have all been involved in the discussion.
Last October, team members visited three South Carolina college towns - North Augusta, Greenville and Spartanburg - to collect ideas. GSU Assistant Professor of Graphic Design Santanu Majumdar then created the concept board.
The cities visited are roughly comparable to Statesboro in size and have a close relationship between their universities and downtowns, Fennell said. Adding affordable housing downtown — with an eye to pulling in students — is another general idea being pursued.
One funding idea for South Main redevelopment received a boost from Statesboro City Council last week. Council members unanimously passed a resolution at their Jan. 6 meeting asking the state Legislature to authorize a city referendum under the Redevelopment Powers Law.
This is the same Georgia law that Bulloch County voters, in a November 2011 referendum, OK'd the county to use. The county commissioners then created a Tax Allocation District, or TAD, around the Interstate 16 interchange on U.S. 301.
A TAD does not increase tax rates. Instead, it dedicates any increase in tax revenue resulting from higher property values — whether from new construction or land being sold at higher prices — to infrastructure improvements within the district. Once empowered by voters, a local government can also issue bonds to be repaid with TAD revenue. The law states that these powers are for use in "economically and socially depressed areas."
The city's referendum could appear on the May 20 primary ballot, said Allen Muldrew, executive director of the Downtown Statesboro Development Authority, or DSDA. If the measure passes, more details would need to be worked out before the city could create a TAD.
Muldrew said he and other supporters of South Main revitalization will encourage the public approve the law's use.
"Whether we use it or not depends on the project," Muldrew said. "All the referendum does is give us the opportunity to use it, so when you vote for it you're voting for an opportunity."
City Manager Frank Parker said he has questions about the use of a TAD for South Main.
"At this point in time, I've got some questions to be answered with regard to that, and to me that is not the answer for an individual piece of property. ..." Parker said. "It's something we've got to address."
However, Councilman Phil Boyum, who made the motion for last week's vote, called it an essential tool.
"The TAD is an essential tool to help speed up the revitalization process of downtown," Boyum said. "Despite the fact that city staff may have differing opinions, the City Council is very much behind the Redevelopment Powers Act and utilizing the tools that the voters will give us to help improve an important area."
At Thursday's community meeting, Parker suggested that the city will have other ways of assisting with South Main revitalization. He said the city is forming a committee and determining the scope of work and looking for grants.
"We're interested in revitalization and we'll all benefit from that, and the city is certainly going to participate in that revitalization - maybe even to a greater extent than what most folks right now might anticipate," Parker said.
Some incentives are already in place. A DSDA program waives city fees for new businesses, including building permit fees up to $1,000, which is the fee for $150,000 worth of construction, noted Mandi Cody, director of the city's Community Development Department. Meanwhile, Sea Island Bank is offering loans up to $300,000 at a 2.99 percent rate for qualifying South Main projects.
Some projects are underway. Centerpiece of the concept board is the former Shoney's building, foreseen as remodeled for the Statesboro Convention and Visitors Bureau. The bureau recently revealed plans to create exhibition space for the GSU Museum there.
Meanwhile, Flash Foods has purchased the one-time Western Sizzlin building with plans to turn it into a convenience store, but with a "traditional" look Cody said should "fit very nicely into our downtown."