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New Statesboro Visitors Center makes a grand entrance
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Representing the Days Inn, Andy Anderson, right, peruses through some of the museum exhibits at the new Statesboro Regional Visitor Information Center during Tuesday's grand opening. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff

Hundreds of people joined community leaders Tuesday afternoon for the official ribbon cutting of the Statesboro Convention and Visitors Bureau's Regional Visitors Center.

The new Visitors Center is a few blocks north of the old location on South Main Street, in the building that used to house Shoney's restaurant. The eatery, which had been closed for years, has been renovated and looks nothing like it did when it served buffet lines.

Dr. Darin Van Tassell, the president of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, told the crowd that this project moved from an idea to fruition in one year.

"This is a wonderful reflection of the commitment of the SCVB board and the power of great partnerships with the communities we serve," he said.

The new center has become a centerpiece project in the city's effort to revitalize the roughly one-mile stretch of South Main Street that connects the Georgia Southern University campus with the center of downtown.

"Now tourists have easier access to the center, with ample parking and a wide entrance drive that allows access to even larger vehicles like RVs," said Heidi Jeffers, the executive director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Attractive and informative displays within the building will offer opportunities for visitors to learn about the available attractions in Bulloch County and the region."

The bureau also created a Museum on Main partnership inside the center with the Georgia Southern Museum and the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences' Public History Program. The museum highlights Statesboro history, showcasing several artifacts, including a 1920s turpentine wagon, originally purchased from W.C. Akins & Sons Hardware on East Main Street.

"The historical exhibit provides a glimpse into Bulloch County's past and provides a great opportunity to attract visitors and give them a context of why this unique community and unique institutions are here," said Dr. Brent Tharp, the director of the Georgia Southern Museum. "In addition, it provides a fantastic opportunity for our students, giving them a working laboratory."

According to Andy Bhula, past president of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, the bureau acquired the building for $240,000, and it has invested around $150,000 in renovations. The bureau sold the former location for $140,000, and board member Peggy Chapman has raised more than $135,000 through a capital campaign.

In one of the more interesting moments of the ceremony, Statesboro Mayor Jan Moore recognized former City Manager Frank Parker for his support and involvement with this project. Parker, in turn, recognized city Building Inspector Sterling Starling for overseeing the project.

Parker was fired by a divided City Council on June 24, when Moore and City Attorney Alvin Leaphart recounted statements Parker had made five days earlier. Moore said at that meeting that Parker said he regularly met with "four or five of the councilmen in a room to discuss city business" - something that, if true, would be in violation of Georgia's Open Meetings Act. Parker has filed a lawsuit against the city seeking to be reinstated and receive unspecified damages, and City Council has commissioned an independent investigation looking into whether it has, in fact, violated the Open Meetings Act.

In 1988, the Convention and Visitors Bureau completed certification to become a regional visitors center and recently completed the recertification. This designation gives the center marketing support through the Georgia Department of Economic Development's tourism division.

Beda Johnson, the director of the department's Tourism Division, presented Jeffers with a plaque recognizing this designation.

"This is one of the top three visitor centers in the state, and I think it is definitely one of the best," Johnson said. "They certainly deserve extra credit for turning an eyesore in downtown into this gorgeous center."

The Visitors Center is open to the public Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

DeWayne Grice may be reached at (912) 489-9499.

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