Statesboro’s city government is moving forward with renaming Lester Road to Coach Lee Hill Boulevard, but City Council will consider an ordinance change to require some opportunity for public input before future street name changes.
Hill, 68, who taught and coached at Statesboro High School for 44 years, including as head basketball coach since 1978, died Aug. 1 after being diagnosed with COVID-19 six weeks earlier. At Mayor Jonathan McCollar’s initiative, he and the council acted to rename Lester Road, the street in front of Statesboro High, in Hill’s honor during a regular meeting the morning of Aug. 4.
But it was a divided decision. District 5 Councilwoman Shari Barr and District 4 Councilman John Riggs, who voted “nay” at that time, said they were in favor of honoring Hill but thought a public input process should precede renaming a street. District 1 Councilman Phil Boyum was away on vacation, and after the council vote split 2-2, McCollar cast his tiebreaker vote in favor.
When the council met again Aug. 18, all five members took part, and Boyum renewed discussion of the street name change. He said that he had meant to attend the previous meeting via a Zoom connection but lost internet service because of a hurricane.
“That said, at that time the council voted to rename Lester Road, in my district, really without any kind of public feedback or hearing…,” Boyum said, “and I’ve had a number of people call me over the past couple of weeks to ask me, ‘What’s going on? Why the change?’”
He added that he also wanted to make it a point of recognizing what Hill meant to the community.
“He certainly affected a lot of young men over the course of his career…,” Boyum said. “Coach Hill was a great ambassador for not only Statesboro but for basketball in Statesboro as well.”
But in the past, Boyum said, the city had taken “anywhere from 12 to 18 months” to go through the process of renaming a street.
Passing by offices, businesses and homes as well as the school, Lester Road is a street approximately three-fourths of a mile long. Boyum said dozens of businesses, hundreds of residents and “thousands of clients (of) doctors’ offices, cancer centers, dentists’ offices” are affected. Insurance cards, drivers’ licenses and voting registrations are among the things tied to addresses that residents have to change, he argued.
Blue Devil Alley
He made an alternative proposal to rename Blue Devil Alley as Coach Lee Hill Way. Blue Devil Alley is the street from the traffic light at the end of Savannah Avenue on Northside Drive East that leads first to parking lots on the southwest end of Statesboro High beside the basketball gym and football stadium. Extending about one-third mile, Blue Devil Alley also passes between the school and stadium to Fleming Drive, but has no businesses or homes on it.
Changing this street’s name, Boyum said, would place a Coach Lee Hill Way sign over one of the busiest intersections in town, where school buses and many other vehicles turn to go to the school and the gym where the basketball court is already named for Hill.
“I think this is a great way to come together,” Boyum asserted. “We can still honor the coach but yet not burden all of those people that live on that street.”
Riggs said he liked the idea.
But District 2 Councilwoman Paulette Chavers, who had made the original motion to rename Lester Road, at first said she didn’t understand why Boyum was even bringing it back up.
“I do think that, you know, it could have had some more public notice, but I voted the way that I wanted it to go,” Chavers said.
McCollar again launched into praise of Hill, calling him “a stalwart of what Statesboro is” who “dedicated 44 years of his life to thousands of young people within this community” and “exemplified a spirit of excellence” and “servant leadership.”
The mayor also had a brief video shown that he had made from a vehicle turning onto and driving along Blue Devil Alley. He called it an alley that runs “alongside the school back past the trash cans and things of the nature.”
“In my opinion, Coach Lee Hill deserves better than that,” McCollar said.
He also said that of all the things the city has done in his time as mayor, “there was nothing received with more gratitude and appreciation than the renaming of Lester Road to Coach Lee Hill Boulevard.”
The city had logged over 1,800 positive interactions on social media and received 210 positive comments, he said.
McCollar noted that an existing section of the city ordinances gives the council and mayor primary responsibility for road naming, requiring a petition only when residents – not the elected officials – seek a name change.
District 3 Councilwoman Venus Mack, participating by teleconferencing connection, was the first to suggest leaving name change for Lester Road in effect but drafting an ordinance to require public input for future street name changes. She had seconded Chavers’ original motion Aug. 4.
“I definitely agree that it’s a headache for businesses,” Mack said Aug. 18. “I’m a business owner. … Yes, we should have the opportunity for input and things like that, but I also don’t want to change it, because that’s almost going to be like a slap in the face. We did something good; OK, now we’re going to take it back. That just doesn’t look good.”
Boyum offered to change his motion to call for new street naming guidelines.
Barr, who had voted against the name change Aug. 18, agreed that a new approach should be adopted for the future but also suggested deferring action on the Lester Road name change for two weeks or a month to solicit more input on how to honor Hill. She noted some other suggestions offered by citizens for an official or honorary street renaming.
“I agree … that I don’t want to take back something that people have been so excited about,” Barr said. “It does feel disrespectful to come back and change it after the fact, but I do have a problem with the way that it happened. … We didn’t have enough opportunity for input for the proper way to honor Coach Hill.”
Chavers said she agreed only that an ordinance requiring that input be sought should be developed for the future, but not with reconsidering the renaming of Lester Road as Coach Lee Hill Boulevard.
Boyum then said he did not want to drag the matter out only to arrive back at the same result, and so dropped his Blue Devil Alley proposal.
First the mayor, and then the council by unanimous voice vote, directed City Attorney Cain Smith to draft an ordinance change, requiring a hearing for public input, before any future street name change. He said he will present it to the council at its Sept. 15 work session.