Ahead looms the potential for a top prize of up to $3 million to be spent developing Statesboro’s Blue Mile.
After being named one of 50 America’s Best Communities quarterfinalists in April 2015 and awarded $50,000, Statesboro and its plan for redevelopment of the South Main Street corridor again made the cut Wednesday when the 15 semifinalists were revealed.
“And now, it is indeed my privilege to announce that Statesboro has emerged as one of the top 15 finalists and is moving forward …,” said Jaclyn Cason, Frontier Communications’ Statesboro general manager.
Before she could say, “… in the America’s Best Communities competition,” the invited crowd in the Averitt Center for the Arts’ Whitaker Black Box Theater erupted in celebration. They had received bells, party horns and other noisemakers at the door.
Nationwide, corporate sponsors Frontier Communications, Dish Network, CoBank and the Weather Channel have committed $10 million in prizes and other support to encourage innovative thinking and fund redevelopment projects.
Originally, about 400 community teams applied. The 50 quarterfinalist teams submitted a variety of proposals, including things such as job retraining programs, housing developments and healthy living initiatives, Cason said. The teams received the $50,000 each to develop more detailed plans, which were reviewed by a panel of judges described as experts.
Ticket to Durham
No new money is awarded at this phase, but three people representing Statesboro will now have an opportunity to pitch the plan to the judges in person during the America’s Best Communities Summit, April 26-27 in Durham, N.C.
There, the judges will select eight finalist communities that will receive $100,000 each to further their plans. Finally, in April 2017, three communities will be awarded the first, second and third prizes of $3 million, $2 million and $1 million, respectively.
“While this is a competition, in the end we all win, because a rising tide lifts all boats, and this campaign will provide small communities from across America with a wealth of creative ideas that we will share and promote,” Cason said.
For Statesboro, it’s an opportunity to develop the Blue Mile, a planned revitalization of South Main Street and surrounding areas from the Georgia Southern University entrances into downtown Statesboro. Long referred to as a vision for South Main, the Blue Mile is now a more detailed strategy, with the letters of the acronym TRUE BLUE assigned to different elements. The plan can now be viewed at www.americasbestcommunities.com. Choose “Semifinalists,” then “Meet the Communities,” and click on Statesboro’s photo.
The original $50,000 award required a local match of $15,000. That was budgeted through the Downtown Statesboro Development Authority and the Averitt Center for the Arts as sponsor organizations. Next week, a proposal will go to City Council to transfer these funds to the city and award EMC Engineering a contract to begin the redesign of the corridor itself, said Statesboro city Planning and Development Director Mandi Cody.
“So that’s one of the elements that we’re already executing, and as the next few weeks and months roll on, we have an implementation plan in the strategy, of action steps that we in the community, the city and different partners in this are going to be taking to implement our plan,” she said.
Next year when the ABC competition concludes, the three communities that “show the greatest potential for achieving sustainable revitalization,” Cason had said, will receive the prizes of $1 million and up.
“One of the key criteria for winning is how well do you implement … so we want to be very dedicated to tangible, visible results happening on the Blue Mile that not only place us for winning the ABC, but truly revitalize our community,” Cody said.
She and other members of the team that put the plan together say the work really started before the contest was announced, with the local 2012 Community Leadership Conference. The Statesboro-Bulloch Chamber of Commerce hosts the conferences annually. South Main revitalization had been a topic of discussion for years, but it became a major focus that year and a plan started to emerge, said Chamber of Commerce President Phyllis Thompson.
“The contest encouraged communities to develop plans,” Thompson said. “The Community Leadership Conference gave us a jump start because we had a plan. The judges could see that and believed in it.”
Keely Fennell, who chaired the Chamber of Commerce in 2013, and Darron Burnette, the 2014 Chamber chairman, worked together to form a South Main Street Revitalization Committee and continue to lead it.
The America’s Best Communities wins are helping build momentum for the project, Burnette said Wednesday. He noted that a city Tax Allocation District, in effect around South Main Street since January 2014, also makes revenue available. The committee is still seeking county government and Board of Education buy-in for all property tax revenue growth within the Blue Mile to be dedicated to redevelopment.
Even the top ABC prize would not fund everything in the plan, Burnette said.
“We could use the $3 million quickly,” he said. “We need millions to do the ideas that we’ve already come up with.”
The plan already includes a budget for how the $100,000 finalist money to be awarded in April would be spent, Cody noted. But besides offering potential funding, the competition has helped bring the ideas of several organizations into a cohesive plan, she said.
The team members Cason called to the front for recognition included representatives of Georgia Power, Georgia Southern University, Stouthouse Media and ME Marketing Services, as well as the city, the Averitt Center, the Chamber of Commerce, the South Main Revitalization Committee and the Downtown Statesboro Development Authority.
Bob Mikell, who is completing a term as DSDA chairman and previously led the campaign for city voters’ approval of the Tax Allocation District powers, called the semifinal win a validation of local plans.
“We know that what we’re doing is the best thing for the community, but to see that someone completely disinterested validates us and gave us a vote of confidence in what we’re doing to advance is really exciting,” he said.
The other semifinalist communities are Lake Havasu City, Arizona; Charleston, West Virginia; Valley County-Meadows Valley, Idaho; Chisago Lakes Area, Minnesota; Huntington, West Virginia; Portsmouth, Ohio; DeKalb, Illinois; Fort Dodge, Iowa; Darrington and Arlington, Washington; Valparaiso, Indiana; Tualatin, Oregon; Wenatchee and East Wenatchee, Washington; Madison, Indiana; and Angola and Fremont, Indiana.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.