I recently visited Statesboro for the first time in a long while and I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Boro has grown appreciably yet still retains its small-town charm.
My roots run deep in Bulloch County. It was the hometown of my parents, now deceased, and of generations before. I was born here, though I grew up in Atlanta after my father's work took him and the family to the big city. Still, my family made annual pilgrimages back to Statesboro all through my living-at-home years and twice I lived here as an adult for a few years at a time. Heck, decades ago, I sold men's clothing at Belk and often ate at the Nic Nac Grille. Years later, I earned my bachelors in journalism at Georgia Southern and wrote Ag Report farmer profiles for the Herald. I still have Waters and Tillman kinfolk all over these parts, including my brother, Tim.
I remember Statesboro when it was a sleepy little town where agriculture was almost everything, along with Georgia Southern College, itself a pretty sleepy little school. Things have changed. Bulloch County has been deemed one of the fastest-growing counties in the state, and Statesboro's population is now nearly 30,000. Agriculture is still important around these parts, but it doesn't count for nearly the economic impact on a percentage basis that it once did. GSC, meanwhile, has become GSU, has more than 20,000 students and 2,000 staff and faculty, and the football Eagles are set to move up to the Football Bowl Subdivision in the Sun Belt Conference. Erk must have been so proud. I am, too.
GSU's substantial growth and the presence of East Georgia Regional Medical Center have no doubt contributed greatly to the remarkable development on and around Veterans Memorial Parkway, which itself still seems new to me. Ringed now with national chain retailers like Books-A-Million and T.J. Maxx, new hotels like the Hampton Inn Statesboro and Springhill Suites Statesboro, and all sorts of chain and home-grown eateries, the parkway has become a major asset for the city.
But perhaps most impressive of all is what's happened downtown. Not many years ago, downtown Statesboro had numerous neglected buildings, little activity even during the day, and seemed to roll up the sidewalks at 5 p.m. It was the last place any resident would want to go, much less a visitor to the city, for enjoyable shopping or socializing. Now it has considerably more retail activity and can be downright lively at night, with fine restaurants like Chops on Main (delicious!) and 40 East Grill (ditto, plus with live music and a new special event facility), as well as the brand new Eagle Creek Brewing Company serving up some tasty beverages. They've joined sites renovated earlier to become prominent art and entertainment venues. The old Bank of Statesboro has become the architecturally striking Averitt Center for the Arts and the Georgia Theater, where I saw many a Hollywood hit, has been transformed into the elegant Emma Kelly Theater.
Statesboro's transformation has been noticed outside the area. Georgia Trend magazine profiled the city's growth in a 2010 article and this past February named it one of eight "Renaissance Cities" in the state. Meanwhile, tourism to the city has picked up dramatically during the last few years.
The tourism aspect is pertinent to me. I make most of my living as a freelance travel writer and I combined a little work with my trip back home for Thanksgiving. Heidi Jeffers, executive director with the Statesboro Convention & Visitors Bureau, helped guide me and my girlfriend, Jill, also a travel writer, to some of Statesboro's finest lodging and dining so we could properly prepare for magazine articles we're working on that highlight the city as a tourist destination. We stayed in The Brannen House at The Historic Statesboro Inn and ate a sumptuous Southern Thanksgiving feast at Beaver House Restaurant. Both facilities are first-rate. We also nibbled and sipped at several other great downtown spots, including Vandy's Barbecue (of course!), Sugar Magnolia Bakery & Café and The Daily Grind, as well as out in the countryside at Meinhardt Vineyards and Winery.
Add to all that the things we weren't able to take in because of the holiday timing — things like the GSU Center for Wildlife Education and the Lamar Q. Ball Jr. Raptor Center, GSU Garden of the Coastal Plain, GSU Museum, Hunter Cattle Co. and Braswell Food Company — and Statesboro has become a legitimate regional tourist destination.
I was quite impressed by Statesboro's progress (the city's first female mayor!) and its developing tourism profile. But what really got to me was the way the city has maintained its friendly, down-home feel. Its honest Southern hospitality. It's right there in the eyes and smiles of the fine folk of Statesboro. In their melodic southern drawl and relaxed saunter. What a great way — a great place — to spend Thanksgiving with my brother and with my oldest friends from just up the road in Sylvania, and to introduce them to Jill (and vice versa). I'm not usually the sentimental type but man, that's about as good as it gets.
I'm hundreds of miles away now in Tennessee and my busy work schedule and other travels make it difficult for me to get back very often.
I hope to change that.
Happy Holidays, Statesboro!
T. Wayne Waters is a Knoxville, Tenn.-based independent journalist and travel writer who is originally from Statesboro and still finds its charms quite alluring.