About 120 business and professional people from across the state, the Leadership Georgia Class of 2015 and their guests, visited Statesboro and Bulloch County last weekend to see how a community grows in new directions while maintaining a traditional economic base in agriculture.
Well, that, and they obviously came to have fun, too. Storming onto the field at Paulson Stadium through the Georgia Southern University Eagles' tunnel was part of the Leadership Georgia Class of 2015's introduction to Statesboro Thursday afternoon. Grouped by their, red, blue, yellow and green Leadership Georgia T-shirts, members were greeted as flag football teams by Georgia Southern cheerleaders, band members and athletics staff. Later, class members capped their first evening here with an outdoor dinner at the GSU Wildlife Education Center, home of literal eagles and other birds of prey.
Many of the participants have previously graduated from local leadership programs comparable to the Statesboro-Bulloch County Chamber of Commerce's Leadership Bulloch, said Gretchen Corbin, chair of Leadership Georgia Board.
"Obviously they are emerging leaders, they are between the ages of 25 and 45, generally, and they come from all over the state of Georgia," she said. "Many of those individuals have gone through their local leadership programs, if there are local leadership programs in their communities. Some communities in Georgia don't have them, so some people come to us organically."
Founded in 1971, the Leadership Georgia program is operated by an independent foundation affiliated with the Georgia Chamber of Commerce. A new Leadership Georgia class is chosen each year, and each year members visit five Georgia cities on five weekends through the year. This year 63 participants were chosen, and each then gets to bring along her or his spouse or significant other.
Members "crisscross the state to see the resources and the assets of different communities with the thought process that those participants have the ability to take what they learn back to their home community and put it to work for a greater state," Corbin said.
For each city visited, the program has a different theme. In January, Leadership Georgia visited Brasstown Valley with "Emerge" as the theme. In March, a visit to Thomasville brought the watchword, "Promote," in May at Jekyll Island, the verb was "Expand." For Statesboro it's "Grow," and the theme of November's concluding experience in Atlanta will be "Advance."
Overall, the motto for the year is "Georgia on the rise."
"But the mission of the organization is the same every year, and that is to create a network of leaders and emerging leaders throughout our state to help advance economic development opportunities throughout our state," said 2015 Leadership Georgia President Vann Parrott.
Each president usually goes on to chair the board. Corbin was last year's president. She, Parrott and other leaders are all volunteers, but the organization has two paid staff members. Program chairs are volunteers chosen as couples to plan the weekends.
"Grow" was given a twofold meaning, said Mollie Cohen, half the program chair couple for September. She and her husband and co-chair, Eric, are from Whigham in southwestern Georgia.
"We're focusing tonight on the growth of Statesboro and the growth of Georgia Southern, and tomorrow we'll have ag day, seeing Bulloch County," Mollie Cohen said Thursday outside the Ted Smith Family Football Center.
The planned tour for Friday, she noted, included visits to Hunter Cattle Co., Charlie and Lee Cromley's farming operations and Southeast Bulloch High School. The group then returned to the university to see its Garden of the Coastal Plain botanical gardens Friday night, where Ogeechee Technical College culinary students would be providing dinner, Cohen said.
Saturday brought a downtown experience, including the Main Street Farmers Market and other downtown Statesboro attractions. Participants who stayed for the full day wound up back at Paulson Stadium where they saw the Eagles overmatch the Citadel 48-13.
"Having the opportunity to tell the story of Statesboro and Bulloch County to a hand-selected group of the most influential people across the states of Georgia is gold for our area," said Statesboro Convention and Visitors Bureau President Darin Van Tassell.
"I am convinced that the Leadership Georgia Class of 2015 returned to their businesses and organizations and are telling their colleagues how their pre-conceived notions of Statesboro as small, rural town did not match with the far more cosmopolitan and energetic city that they experienced," he said.
Group leaders said they found Statesboro very welcoming, and appreciated the efforts, time and resources of local Leadership Georgia alumni and many others who helped make the visit possible.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.