A letter of intent from the city will be the next step to finding out whether federal funding may be available for the Creek on the Blue Mile, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers representatives told Statesboro City Council.
Steve Fischer, chief of the Planning Branch in the Corps’ Savannah District, and Josh Nickel, the district’s manager for the Continuing Authorities Program, or CAP, talked with the five City Council members in a Thursday afternoon meeting at City Hall. If the city sends a letter, the Corps of Engineers would then conduct a screening process, at no cost to the city, to determine eligibility, Nickel explained toward the end of the discussion.
“If as the end result we determine that it’s not to the interest of the federal government to move forward, all you’ve lost potentially is time,” Nickel said. “So no dollars lost, no heartburn, and perhaps you’ve gained some additional knowledge about your project in the engineering mindset that could still help you going forward.”
His best guess of the time required would be “somewhere around six months or less” until a recommendation to the Corps’ division headquarters, he said. But if approved at that level, Statesboro’s creek will then have to compete for funding priority with projects across the nation.
Andy Burns, who led in developing the Market District near the hospital and now co-chairs the volunteer Creek on the Blue Mile Commission, first gave a presentation on the group’s vision. Drawing inspiration from a creek-based redevelopment project in Frederick, Maryland, the Creek on the Blue Mile plan features a tiered linear park, a central plaza around a fountain and other park spaces surrounded by townhomes, residential lofts, parking and commercial development, in addition to the central creek and reservoir.
“It’s nothing more than a storm water project on steroids,” Burns told the Corps of Engineers representatives.
Burns’ presentation also highlighted photos of flooding that occurred in places within the proposed scope of the project as recently as last July. The area targeted for development encompasses about 75 acres now in a flood plain, Burns noted.
The Blue Mile Foundation and the Downtown Statesboro Development Authority commissioned a feasibility study completed by EMC Engineering in May 2018. A roughly 25-acre reservoir west of South College Street was envisioned, draining to the developed creek, which would cross under South Main Street, also known as the Blue Mile.
Last fall, “Blue Creek” volunteers received a commitment from then-Gov. Nathan Deal of a $5.5 million state direct investment, in effect a grant, to build the reservoir, plus a $15.5 million Georgia Environmental Financial Authority line of credit for the creek. The city has accepted responsibility for repaying whatever is used of that 30-year loan at an deeply discounted 2.25 percent interest rate.
But District 5 Councilman Derek Duke recently took the initiative to call Fischer about the project to see if federal funds that would not have to be repaid could be available.
There are two potential sources in the CAP funds, Fischer said Thursday.
“You guys have got a great design already. …,” he said. “You’ve done a lot of the homework, so what I’m trying to figure out is how we can maybe marry up some of those programs.”
One possible source is a fund, or “authority,” for ecosystem restoration. But Fischer said this seems less likely to fit Statesboro’s plans, since the intended results are usually “much more natural looking.”
The other fund is specifically for flood risk management.
“I’m kind of struggling to figure out, because you have a plan already, how we could use one of those authorities,” Fischer said. “That’s not to say we can’t get creative here, because in the world of planning that’s what we like to do, is figure out creative solutions.”
Either CAP authority can supply up to $10 million in federal money for a single project, covering 65 percent of construction costs and requiring a 35 percent local match. However, the local contribution can include in-kind services.
The Corps of Engineers would do its own feasibility study, free to the city up to a federal cost of $100,000, and shared 50-50 with the city for any study costs above that, Fischer said.
Recently, the city staff has been preparing a request for qualifications to contract a private engineering firm or team of firms to do the detailed work, such as determining the actual size and placement of the reservoir and the course and depth of the creek. Engineering studies can count as in-kind spending toward a federal grant, if done after a project is determined to be of federal interest, Nickel said.
‘Fork in road’
“It sounds like it would be a good idea to bring you on at this process and then work together until you guys make a feasibility study, and at that point it will be a fork in the road,” District 1 Councilman Phil Boyum told the Corps officials. “We’ll either keep going with you or we’ll start digging into that GEFA loan.”
Mayor Pro Tem John Riggs, District 4 council member, conducted the meeting, with Mayor Jonathan McCollar listening by telephone.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.