Three enthusiastic spokes-folks travel to the America’s Best Communities Summit in Durham, N.C., this week with Stateboro’s plan to create a Blue Mile with archways and park spaces, no visible power lines, a Statesboro Stars Walk and a permanent home for the Main Street Farmers Market.
Statesboro is in the running for up to $3.1 million to make a start building out the plan for a revitalized South Main Street neighborhood. When selected as one of 50 America’s Best Communities, or ABC, quarterfinalists last April, Statesboro received $65,000 to develop the plan. No further prize money came with Statesboro’s selection in January as one of 15 quarterfinalist communities, but when judges hear the live pitch this week and narrow the bracket to eight finalists, each will receive $100,000.
Then, based on what is achieved in the next year, three winning communities will get $1 million for third place, $2 million for second place, or $3 million for third place in April 2017.
“South Main revitalization came before and it will go on, whether we are in this until next week or we’re in this to the very end of the competition,” said Phyllis Thompson, president of the Statesboro-Bulloch Chamber of Commerce. “This competition has been a powerful vehicle for our momentum in developing and executing South Main revitalization.”
Nationwide, corporate sponsors Frontier Communications, Dish Network, CoBank and the Weather Channel have committed $10 million in prizes and other support to encourage innovative thinking and fund redevelopment projects.
Statesboro’s plan calls for using some of next week’s $100,000 prize to hire a branding and recruitment firm to help sell vacant properties and market the Blue Mile as a shopping and entertainment destination.
Even the $3 million top prize wouldn’t pay for all the proposed infrastructure, such as parks, fountains, brick paver sidewalks and improved railroad crossings, the plan’s advocates acknowledge. Turning everything in the plan into a reality would cost millions more in public and private investment.
‘But the opportunity to be able to tell people what our vision is, and how we plan to fund it and those kinds of things, that has been invaluable to us,” Thompson said.
Thompson, local lawyer Bob Mikell and the city’s outgoing planning and development director, Mandi Cody, have been warming up for weeks as the Statesboro ABC pitch team. On Wednesday, they will make a 10-minute presentation and then spend five minutes answering questions from the judges. The winning communities are to be announced beginning at 4:45 p.m.
For rehearsal, the team has made the presentation, while revising it, about 20 times to local groups, ranging from the Bulloch County Board of Commissioners and Statesboro City Council to a group of homebuilders, Georgia Southern University students and two garden clubs. Georgia Power also hosted an event called Pizza and a Pitch for a diverse group of people to hear the presentation.
At the County Commission meeting Tuesday, the team didn’t have a slide show, but just talked. Keeping some things out of competitors’ sight for now, they will add visuals on the way to Durham.
Blue Mile background
The presenters give a bit of history, beginning with the arrival of delegation in downtown Statesboro in 1906 with approval for a school that grew to be Georgia Southern University. Noting that South Main Street, measuring roughly one mile, links the GSU campus to downtown Statesboro, Mikell also called it “a section of U.S. Highway 301 that’s never fully recovered from the construction of the freeways and the loss of tourist traffic.”
The current drive to change this started with a 2012 planning retreat and was taken up by a South Main Street Revitalization Committee involving business leaders.
For the out-of-town judges, Statesboro’s team will explain that the Blue Mile name plays on Georgia Southern’s blue and white and the classic blues song, “The Statesboro Blues.” The team then outlines a plan to “reclaim” the Blue Mile as a place that people want to live, “regain” its economic health and “return,” as Mikell put it, “its identity as the economic and cultural hub of our nine-county rural region.”
The plan and presentation tie into efforts already underway. Georgia Southern has worked with the city in the creation of the Innovation Incubator and Fab Lab, expected to open this summer, as an expansion of the GSU City Campus, in city-owned buildings actually on East Main Street. Thompson intends to show judges a plastic Blue Mile medallion made on the Fab Lab’s 3D printer to emphasize the city-university cooperation and the Blue Mile’s role as a connector for the two campuses.
Touting the Blue Mile as a residential neighborhood, as well as a commercial and entertainment hub, the presenters talked about efforts to create new and rehabilitated houses in the corridor. In its Homes for Heroes program, the Downtown Statesboro Development Authority is reworking some previously dilapidated houses there as homes for police and firefighters. Habitat for Humanity, in which Mikell is involved in addition to being a member of the DSDA board and the South Main Street Revitalization Committee, is renovating two homes in the district as well.
“There’s a lot of private momentum that is happening and nonprofit momentum that is coming into the area simply as a result of the energy and excitement surrounding the Blue Mile,” Cody said.
The pitch team also notes that many Georgia Southern students have been involved in these efforts as volunteers, and that students have taken an interest in the Blue Mile plan itself.
For funding sources other than the prize money, the team talks about the tax allocation district, or TAD, authorized by Statesboro voters and in effect since January 2015. Tax rates were not increased in the TAD, which includes the South Main corridor and some connected areas. Instead, any new revenue resulting from construction, renovations or rising property values is set aside for public infrastructure spending within the district.
The Blue Mile advocates also mention low-interest loans some local banks offer for development in the district, and the city’s recently renewed incentive program that waives permit fees for new businesses, and construction and renovations, including residential projects, in the downtown area.
The illustrated Blue Mile plan shows two options for a park in the area. One concept, labeled Friendship Park, includes an amphitheater, two buildings for the Farmers’ Market, and two circular lawn and picnic areas connected like a figure-8. The other concept, Community Park, shows a smaller outdoor stage area, a single building for the Farmers’ Market and other events, and other green spaces. Both also have water features.
Such a park probably remains a few years in the future, the community spokespersons say. Either option would require land now in private hands.
Another ambitious concept in the Blue Mile plan shows a series of decorative archways over South Main itself. The first, a gateway arch with the lettered “South Main Street” over the heads of motorists, could be installed by April 2017, according to the plan’s timeline, but Mikell said the others are probably several years from reality.
The Statesboro Stars Walk would be a pedestrian path through the Blue Mile with monuments honoring notable past and present Statesboro residents. Examples named in the illustrated plan include musicians Blind Willie McTell and Emma Kelly, Major League baseball player John Tudor, educator William James and Kennedy Space Center director James W. Kennedy.
Besides the branding and marketing effort and the gateway arch, other projects on the proposed timeline for the next 11 months include installation of a Blind Willie McTell statue at the Statesboro Convention and Visitors Bureau, opening of the planned dog park nearby and planning the Stars Walk.
“Phases past this first 11 months that we detailed in the plan itself have not been established,” Cody said. “That’s something the community would have to decide as we got to that point.”
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.