In an attempt to bring the cost of the proposed Creek on the Blue Mile project down from the original estimate, which ranged upwards from $44.5 million, consulting engineers now suggest removing the dam and reservoir from the immediate plan.
Removing those structures would reduce the projected cost to $27.6 million, engineers from the Freese & Nichols firm told Statesboro’s mayor and City Council during a work session Tuesday afternoon. Meanwhile, the city government will be applying to the state for some additional funding. The city already has $21 million in state financing and funding available, including a $5.5 million grant and a $15.5 million line of credit, both through the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority, or GEFA. But the city will eventually have to repay any portion of the $15.5 million it uses, along with some interest.
The engineering team’s original cost estimate was roughly $44.5 million for the entire project, included the 26-acre reservoir. But applying industry standards to allow for cost variability, the engineers in a December quoted a $40.2 million to $64.8 million range. That was later revised to a range of $44.63 million to $72.39 million.
“The very first line item – the dam, the reservoir and the structures to fill that infrastructure – was a huge chunk of that money, in the $27 million to $44 million range,” Freese & Nichols engineer Eric Nease acknowledged Tuesday. “So we started looking at what could we do, what could we change, could we make the reservoir an alternative for later, possibly.”
Making the reservoir, the dam and their inlet and outlet structures an additive alternate in eventual construction bids will allow these to be withheld from the initial project, the engineering team suggested.
“It would make it something optional,” Nease said.
With the reservoir on hold, the remainder of the project, included in the reduced $27.6 million estimate, would include channel improvements and construction downstream – in other words, east and southeast – from where the railroad tracks run a little to the east of South College Street.
“Currently the railroad crossing creates a natural impoundment for the whole system, and if we look at only downstream of the railroad, that would mean there would be no changes to the current flood levels upstream of the railroad,” Nease said. “That would all be as it is today.”
The downstream work would include the construction of a tiered promenade, where ornamental lamps, shade trees and planters, park benches and café-type tables could be installed. With these amenities, the promenade would become the long-suggested “linear park” element.
Although the Blue Mile is South Main Street from the Georgia Southern University campus north to the Bulloch County Courthouse, Little Lotts Creek in this section mostly runs west to east. So the “Blue Mile” creek project actually crosses under the Blue Mile.
The reduced cost estimate adds the construction of a bridge, instead of box culverts as originally planned, at Zetterower Avenue. That bridge will not span a walkway underneath the avenue, Nease said. However, the promenade’s walkway is planned to extend under bridges on South Main Street and Fair Road.
While not reaching upstream to include a reservoir, this revised proposal would extend the channel improvements further downstream.
“The last thing we had to do was we had to improve the channel from Zetterower all the way down to Gentilly (Road). …,” Nease said, referring to an onscreen aerial photo. “We had to maximize the hydraulic capacity of this section so that we didn’t hold water back and cause water to build up on the promenade and sidewalk area.”
The engineering team mapped the predicted depth of water that a so-called 100-year storm would place in the improved channel. This was shown as six inches above the promenade’s surface below the railroad embankment near College Street, but only about one inch above the promenade at South Main Street. Such a flood would then remain in the channel, about three inches below the promenade at the Fair Road crossing and about five inches below it at Zetterower Avenue.
Andy Burns, chair of the Creek District Oversight Committee and one of the original proponents of the project as a means to facilitate private investment, said committee members found these levels acceptable. Water might cover the sidewalk once a year, he said.
“We were certainly willing to accept that compromise in order to get the project funded,” Burns told the mayor and council.
Flood map revision
As part of further work for the city, the engineering team, which also involves local firm EMC Engineering Services as well as Freese & Nichols, is expected to prepare and submit requests for revisions of Federal Emergency Management Agency flood insurance maps. The current maps date from the late 1970s, with later updates in a few locations.
The creek plan should reduce the overall size of the flood plain near the creek, according to Nease and Project Manager George Kelley, also with Freese and Nichols.
“That hopefully would reduce flood insurance (costs) for some property owners, not necessarily all of them,” Nease said.
City Manager Charles Penny said the map revision is important because it will reassure potential investors in private development around the creek.
Councilman Phil Boyum asked whether the reduced project would remain true to the original purpose of the state funding.
“The grant that we got from the state, does that require us to build a reservoir?” Boyum asked.
“It’s related; it’s related,” answered Penny. “There is some connection to a reservoir, and again, I’m saying to you, we have not completely ruled it out, but we need to continue studying that issue, and this is not the final report. … We might not have to build a reservoir in order to get it done.”
But a smaller reservoir or “lake” of some kind could remain a possibility, he suggested.
Penny noted that the engineers’ latest work is still part of the study phase and that the actual design work remains to be done, separately. Obtaining U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approval also remains necessary, and work to obtain that approval was shown as a $500,000 cost item in the $27.6 million projection.
Council takes action
During the regular meeting that followed Tuesday’s work session, City Council approved three items related to the project.
One was a new memorandum of understanding with the Creek on the Blue Mile Foundation, requiring that any proceeds from sale of land acquired by the foundation go to the city to help fund the project.
The council also agreed to request an extension of the GEFA funding to January 2026, since the original funding agreement required the project to be underway by January 2022.
Finally, the council authorized applying for a grant from Georgia’s Fiscal Recovery Fund, created with federal money under the American Rescue Plan Act, to help fund the Creek on the Blue Mile as a storm water infrastructure project.
The application deadline is Aug. 31. Statesboro city staff members had not determined an amount. But Penny said they are hoping for $3 million to $5 million “to close that gap” between current funding and the $27.6 million estimate.
Council members also suggested that the bridges included in the estimate might be eligible for state funding as transportation projects.