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Next week the big one in ABC contest
'America's Best' rally Monday on the Blue Mile
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Keely Fennell, left, and Darron Burnette

Next week will bring the long-awaited news of whether Statesboro wins a prize of $1 million, $2 million or even $3 million in the America's Best Communities competition to fund redevelopment projects on the Blue Mile corridor.

The three big winners from among the eight nationwide finalist communities are to be named during an event Wednesday, April 19, in Denver, Colorado.

But a public "Rally to Be America's Best" is planned here for 10 a.m. Monday at Jones Lane Park on South Main Street, off the southbound lanes at the Blue Mile gateway signs. Everyone is invited, and organizers encourage people living and working in Statesboro to wear some blue, even if they don't attend the rally. It is meant as a sendoff for the team of five Blue Mile representatives who will be flying to Denver Tuesday morning.

"But more than that, it's a celebration to say, 'Look what we've all done,' and that we're glad we've been able to partner with all these folks to make a difference in our community, and to look forward to other accomplishments," said Keely Fennell, one of the two Blue Mile Committee co-chairs.

Parking at little Jones Lane Park is limited. For previous Blue Mile events there, some participants have parked at nearby businesses or at Georgia Southern University, which is directly across South Main, also known as U.S. Highway 301.

Fennell, owner of NeSmith Construction, and Darron Burnette, president and CEO of Sea Island Bank, have led planning for about five years now by volunteers interested in bringing new life to South Main Street. Participants at a 2012 planning retreat hosted by the Statesboro-Bulloch Chamber of Commerce identified South Main revitalization as a major goal. The corridor had seen declines since interstate highways displaced U.S. 301 as a major thoroughfare for vacation travel decades ago.

The volunteers worked on plans for about a year and a half before they learned about the America's Best Communities contest from Frontier Communications local Manager Jaclyn Cason. Frontier is one of four sponsor corporations that, together, committed $10 million to the contest promoting development projects in cities with 50,000 or fewer people. After more than 350 communities reportedly entered, Statesboro was chosen as one of the 50 quarterfinalists, each of which received $50,000 for their projects. Statesboro received $100,000 more as one of the eight finalists chosen one year ago.

Team of five

The team going to Denver includes Fennell, Burnette, Chamber of Commerce President Phyllis Thompson, Downtown Statesboro Development Authority Executive Director Allen Muldrew and Georgia Southern University Vice President for External Affairs Trip Addison.

They will not be making a pitch to the ABC judges the way a local team did in April 2016. The judges and sponsors will already have determined the winners based on materials submitted, including progress reports and, in Statesboro's case, a heavily illustrated, recently updated 59-page revitalization plan.

"We will still make what I call a thank-you pitch to the national sponsors who have hosted this competition, basically saying this is what we have done in Statesboro and we're very thankful to Dish Network, Frontier Communications, CoBank, the Weather Channel and others who have made this revitalization possible for our community," Fennell said.

The presentation is expected to last about 15 minutes. A local viewing party, for the presentations beginning at 7 p.m. Eastern Time April 19, is being planned on the Blue Mile, but the exact location has yet to be confirmed.

How confident?

"I'm very confident that Statesboro has done the best that we can do," Fennell said. "I think we've actually over-exceeded our expectations, and I'm counting on (the $3 million prize), but regardless of how we end up, our community has won because we're all working together and we have a plan to move forward."

If Statesboro is awarded $1 million or more, the team will of course be celebrating in Denver. But if the result is not a win, there will probably be some tears, said Burnette.

"I will be extremely disappointed because I think our Blue Mile team has done a great job of accomplishing all the things that we set out for, and I just know this is a wonderful community and I'm hoping that we will be blessed when we get out there," he said.

How will it be spent?

The prize money, if forthcoming, would not go into the city's general fund but would be set aside for use on Blue Mile initiatives.

Streetscaping is a part of the Blue Mile plan. So is promoting the arts, Fennell said. A Georgia Southern art professor is completing a statue of "Statesboro Blues" musician "Blind Willie" McTell, to be seated on a bench in front of the Statesboro Convention and Visitors Bureau. The unveiling is slated for May.

Other initiatives in the plan include business recruitment, incentives to promote private investment in housing, and the construction of affordable homes in cooperation with Habitat for Humanity and the Downtown Statesboro Development Authority.

Proposed public greenspaces include a dog park, for which the DSDA has now leased a site.

Statesboro established a Tax Allocation District, effective since January 2015, along and around South Main. The TAD sets aside tax growth from new construction and rising property values for public projects in the district. This would be available regardless of whether there is an ABC win.

But the Georgia Department of Transportation last month committed $450,000 to the city for sidewalk and other improvements, on the condition that Statesboro wins one of the top ABC cash awards. Meanwhile, Georgia Southern has plans to extend a walking trail on its campus to the Blue Mile gateway.

"So, we hope to increase the effect of our winnings by partnering with various organizations as we move forward," Fennell said.

Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.



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