Facing a challenger and with early voting now beginning in the Nov. 2 election, Statesboro Mayor Jonathan McCollar appears to be taking nothing for granted. McCollar said Monday he has “exponentially more” volunteers campaigning for him than he did for his 2017 victory.
That challenger is Ernest Larry Lawton, 70, a truck driver, trucking company owner and minister. McCollar, 47, commutes to work in Hinesville as assistant campus director for Georgia Southern University's Liberty Campus but has presided in-person at almost all Statesboro City Council meetings and represented the city at many other events since taking office in January 2018.
In early November 2017 he captured almost 53% of the votes to 42% for then-Mayor Jan Moore in a three-candidate election. Although turnout was a mere 15.8% of Statesboro's registered voters at the time, the cheers from McCollar's supporters could be heard several blocks from the watch party.
“We have exponentially more volunteers than we did four years ago,” McCollar said, “but that only speaks to the amount of success that we’ve had in the past four years, and people are getting what the ‘People Over Politics’ movement is all about, and what it’s about is having transparent governance that’s working to put the interests of the people above any political motives or anything along those lines.”
He had no actual count of the volunteers because they are in "different groups working on different things” from marketing and social media to to phoning Statesboro residents and knocking on doors in an effort to reach every voter, he said.
Sidewalks and parks
But as the basis of his appeal to continue in office, McCollar cites things Statesboro and its city government have achieved that are visible and in some cases literally solid, such as newly installed sidewalks to a pair of transformed parks.
“We’ve provided leadership that people can see,” he said. “People are seeing that their roads are getting resurfaced, we’re building sidewalks where there were never sidewalks before, we’re rebuilding parks and revitalizing neighborhoods. We’re moving this city forward in light years compared to where it was.”
With shared financial support from the county, the city government oversaw $4.5 million in renovations to Luetta Moore Park and the Rev. W.D. Kent Park, both on Statesboro's west side, from March through this summer.
The county commissioners committed $1 million from Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax revenue and the city another $1.1 million over five years from the city's share of SPLOST. The city then borrowed the full $4.5 million at a low interest rate on a 10-year bond issued through a newly created Urban Redevelopment Agency.
McCollar notes that, earlier in his term, the city cooperated with the county commissioners to win voter support for both an extension of the SPLOST and the first local adoption of a separate 1% sales tax for transportation projects and equipment called T-SPLOST. This included $450,000 specifically earmarked for development of a public transit system in Statesboro.
A small-bus transit system has now been planned, requiring federal and state grants and with the city working in cooperation with the Coastal Regional Commission, or CRC. This is one element of McCollar's major project list that hasn't quite been realized, since delivery of the four 10-passanger buses has been delayed throughout this year. But CRC officials have attributed this to the shortage of vehicle microchips caused by the global supply chain disruption brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Well, the success in this is that we know that it’s coming. ...,” McCollar said. “Our hope is by March of next year we will be able to have those buses rolling, but we are at the mercy of the supply chain right now.”
T-SPLOST revenue -- the city's total share over five years is expected to be between $20.64 million and $25.8 million -- is also being used to match and extend state grants for the sidewalk extension and street resurfacing projects he mentioned.
Housing and food
Recently, the bulk of a $12.3 million windfall in federal funds Statesboro qualified for under the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, has recently been proposed by City Manager Charles Penny and staff members for rehabilitation of substandard housing and extension of city sewer lines to neighborhoods still on private septic systems.
Local officials also propose using $500,000 of city ARPA money and $500,000 of county ARPA money plus a further $1 million grant the county hopes to obtain to provide $2 million for construction of a permanent home for the Statesboro Food Bank.
Food insecurity and a shortage of quality affordable housing are two problems McCollar says the city must address in the next four years.
"These are two of the top-tier things that we’re going to have to address, but both of these things go back to what I stated in 2017 as the biggest issue our city is facing, and that’s poverty. ... ," he said Monday. "I think that we’ve made a lot of ground, but the city of Statesboro has a lot of work to do in continuing to address poverty within our community.”
Before he took office in January 2018, his supporters assembled three citizen panels that were later adopted by City Council as city commissions. The workforce development commission Statesboro Works was later consolidated into One Boro, also known as the Statesboro Commission on Diversity and Inclusion. The Youth Commission now uses the name Statesboro Community Youth Network.
Last year, City Council enacted an "equity package" proposed by One Boro and council members. It includes a Non-Discrimination Ordinance, which in addition to a system for addressing complaints of discrimination in housing, public accommodations and employment, provides a percentage preference to local female- and minority-owned businesses in bidding for city contracts.
“The city of Statesboro has made historic investment into its young people as well,” McCollar said. “This past summer we launched our Youth Connect program, which is a job-training program that lasts for five weeks during the summer. We were able to pilot that program with 20 young people from the community."
These high school-age students were paid a stipend equivalent to the federal minimum wage for hours spent in skills training and work experiences with the city government, its Fire Department and the Ogeechee Judicial Circuit Public Defenders Office.
Additionally, the city implemented an internship program for Georgia Southern, Ogeechee Technical College and East Georgia State College students in collaboration with those schools and the Statesboro-Bulloch County Chamber of Commerce.