Tuesday evening actions by Statesboro City Council clear the way for major business developments by AgSouth Farm Credit and J.C. Lewis Ford.
AgSouth, a farmer-owned financial services cooperative with 24 branches and $1.7 billion in assets, plans to consolidate its three traditional headquarters, two of which are in Orangeburg and Spartanburg, South Carolina, to its Statesboro headquarters. The council gave unanimous approval for tearing down three masonry warehouses, which are more than 100 years old and within Statesboro’s nationally registered, historic East Vine Street Warehouse and Depot District, to allow AgSouth to expand behind its two existing buildings on South Main Street, creating a corporate campus with a park-like central greenspace facing Vine.
J.C. Lewis Ford’s plans are longer-range, to relocate its Statesboro dealership from the current, leased location to a 14.5-acre site the company will own on the other side of U.S. Highway 301, inside the bypass across from Uncle Shug’s.
New AgSouth HQ
After looking at other cities, including some in South Carolina, for a consolidated headquarters, AgSouth’s board decided on Statesboro, said local attorney Bob Mikell, who spoke on behalf the company at Tuesday’s meeting. AgSouth spent about $1.5 million on the two parcels along East Vine Street behind its current buildings, he said.
“Initially, they looked at the possibility, as they did with the old post office and the old Piggly Wiggly, of rehabbing these buildings into something they could use,” Mikell told City Council. “But once they got in there, they realized that sadly the state of decay in these buildings made it financially not very feasible to do that.”
Ag South’s corporate administrative offices on South Main are mainly inside the historic post office that served as Statesboro City Hall before the Jaeckel Hotel was restored. The cooperative’s Statesboro branch is in the former Piggly Wiggly – which now has a brick-front and white posts so that looks nothing like a grocery store – to the right of the administrative headquarters.
Although AgSouth invested in repurposing those buildings, the warehouses it has purchased are far from being up to current building codes, would require complete replacement of roofs and floors, and have no windows, Mikell noted.
These statements were also reflected in an assessment general contractor John Lavender did for AgSouth. Photos of the warehouses show rotting wood, deteriorating brick, and sunlight pouring through gaps in a roof and walls. Lavender estimated that more than 41 percent of materials would need to be replaced in one building, more than 68 percent in the second and almost 74 percent in the third before actual renovations for the new use, Mikell said.
One of the warehouses, which Mikell referred to as a showroom, is smaller and was included with the adjoining warehouse in one of the two parcels. The showroom was once a pawnshop and more recently of Galactic Comics & Games, which has now relocated across Vine Street.
Ag South plans to construct a 7,780-square-foot training, meeting and employee building that would extend from about where the old showroom was through part of the former warehouse footprint. The plans also include parking areas.
For now, AgSouth has moved some administrative offices into the Darley Building, a storefront row facing Vine Street, which the company also plans to tear down.
In that area, drawings show a landscaped greenspace with brick walkways, framed on three sides by the two existing AgSouth buildings and the new building. The Mainstreet Farmers Market is currently held on Saturdays across Vine Street in the Sea Island Bank parking area known as Charlie Olliff Square, Mikell noted.
“So really, if you’re looking at expanding the farmers market or other downtown events, this would be a great spot,” he said.
The warehouses to be demolished were included with two more warehouses and the nearby depot in the district’s Sept. 9, 1989 listing on the National Register of Historic Places. These warehouses were built from 1906 to 1908, according to the city Planning and Development Department’s research. As part of the Downtown Statesboro Development Authority’s area, the buildings required City Council approval to be removed.
In the department’s report, the planning and development staff recommended “either an attempt to rehabilitate the existing structure or consideration of a revised site plan to include the new proposed structure while preserving the existing building.”
Removing half the buildings could cause the whole district to be removed from the National Register, the report suggested.
“Staff is of the opinion that retaining and rehabilitating the structures will assist with preserving the visual and tangible cultural identity of the City of Statesboro,” the staff report said.
However, the Planning Commission, on a 4-0 vote Nov. 2, recommended that City Council grant the request for demolition. During Tuesday’s council hearing, City Planning and Development Director Frank A. Neal Jr. noted that the report on the buildings’ history was included in the packets.
But when Mayor Jan Moore asked for supporters and opponents to speak, no one spoke against the demolition request.
Mikell noted that the warehouses were also identified in a the 2011 Downtown Statesboro Master Plan among a few buildings classed as “dilapidated,” meaning they should be torn down if they could not be feasibly repaired. Part of one of the buildings caved in years ago, he noted, and said a 35 percent structural decline was the standard for allowing demolition.
Some materials such as bricks and beams salvaged from the warehouses will be used in the new buildings, said John Rule, architect on the project.
“The owner also intends to try to capture the historic quality of that era by enlarging photographs and framing them in their lobby of that time frame,” Rule said.
In the Blue Mile
Mikell said that AgSouth’s expansion here will initially bring 20 new high-paying jobs, with the potential to expand up to 76 jobs.
“I can’t tell you how thrilled, absolutely thrilled I am to have a company willing to make that kind of investment in our downtown and bring those kinds of jobs, and it appears you’ve done your homework as to what you can do with that property,” Moore said. “I think it’s a better day in Statesboro.”
The planned development is in the Blue Mile corridor for the revitalization of South Main Street and in its tax allocation district, where new property tax revenue is dedicated to redevelopment projects.
Statesboro-Bulloch Chamber of Commerce President Phyllis Thompson also spoke in favor the project, but said she was speaking as a Blue Mile Committee member.
“I have seen these impressive plans and I certainly feel they are well aligned with what the Blue Mile Committee has been hoping to see in development in our central core, our downtown,” Thompson said.
What City Council approved Tuesday, on a series 4-0 votes with Councilman John Riggs absent, were the warehouse demolitions and also permission to relocate an alley.
J.C. Lewis Ford
J.C. Lewis Ford, based in Savannah, took over the former Rozier Ford dealership on U.S. Highway 301 South in Statesboro in March 2014. Attorney Marc Bruce explained that J.C. Lewis Ford leased the existing dealership from Frank Rozier but that the leases expires in 2018 and the company wants a new location it will own.
By a series of votes, the council approved rezoning four adjacent parcels, totaling 14.5 acres, inside the bypass. The target date for opening a new dealership there is Jan. 1, 2019, Bruce said.
The site will also require changes in highway access points to address traffic concerns.
“We hope to have a lot of traffic up there on that corner,” said Walter Lewis, president of J.C. Lewis Ford, who also attended the meeting.
Business editor DeWayne Grice is working on a more extensive report on AgSouth’s Statesboro expansion for an upcoming installment of the Herald’s Tuesday business page.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.