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Statesboro Main Street among GEMS
City support, community partners key, says DSDA
Sadie Pierce, 7, gets up up-close look as Daniel "The Chalk Guy" Wair works his magic as the Downtown Statesboro Development Authority celebrated the arts during this past April's First Friday event. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/file

Not every Main Street program in Georgia has secured land for a community dog park, is in the process or rebuilding three homes, or is in an America's Best Communities award-winning town. Only Main Street Statesboro has all of those things.

But 16 of Georgia's 94 Main Street programs are now Georgia Exceptional Main Streets, or GEMS. Since April, the program operated by the Downtown Statesboro Development Authority is one of them.

This year the Georgia Department of Community Affairs expanded the GEMS designation, previously awarded to downtown development programs in eight communities, to include eight more.

"They may find a few more, but they won't add eight more every year because there just aren't that many out there that meet this," said Allen Muldrew, executive director of the DSDA. "It's a pretty high standard in terms of what you're doing, your collaborations, are you funded, do you have staff, your board is engaged."

Besides having "a great board," the DSDA enjoys strong support from the city and collaborative relationships with organizations such as Georgia Southern University, the Averitt Center for the Arts and Habitat for Humanity of Bulloch County, he said.

Since Muldrew's arrival in the executive director's role in October 2008, his goal has been "to position the Development Authority to be able to take advantage of opportunities when they come," he said.

Dog park in 2017

The dog park is his most recent example. The park has been proposed for several years, but finding a deal on a relatively open site in the downtown area presented a challenge.

Then Habitat for Humanity moved its ReStore out of the building it had occupied for several years beside the railroad tracks on Cherry Street. With Habitat no longer using the adjoining land for parking, the DSDA negotiated the use of a parcel between the tracks and the Blind Willie McTell Trail on a minimal-rent lease from the railroad company Norfolk Southern. The lease is in the city's name.

The next step, cleanup of the site, should begin by the end of the summer, Muldrew said.

"So that will be an opportunity, again, for the community to jump in," he said. "The university is calling me for their August student leadership projects, and we'll probably have help cleaning that site up from there."

Over the years, the DSDA has purchased a number of commercial buildings for cleanup and redevelopment. But in the past two years, the authority has moved into new territory, buying three lots with dilapidated houses for its community revitalization initiative, Homes for Heroes.

The idea is to replace or renovate the old houses and sell the resulting homes to public servants, such as police officers and firefighters, as exemplary neighbors. So far, the DSDA has renovated one house but had another, deemed too costly to fix, torn down. On the cleared lot, the Home Builders Association of Statesboro is building a new house funded by the DSDA.

"The DSDA, it's really tough for us to accomplish anything in and of ourselves because what we're doing is doing is a lot bigger than us," Muldrew said.

Blue Mile win

Another collaborative effort stirred publicity for the Blue Mile plan for revitalizing South Main Street and won $1 million from America's Best Communities competition corporate sponsors for the effort.

The Blue Mile Committee is separate from the DSDA, but the authority got the ball rolling in the contest application with help from city staff, the Chamber of Commerce and the Averitt Center. The $1 million third-place national prize was announced in April after Statesboro had won $150,000 in earlier rounds.

Of course, the authority also works with downtown businesses. It recognized several businesses and business leaders with its annual Brick Awards in March.

City Council recently renewed the Downtown Incentive Program. It waives city business license fees, building permit fees and certain other fees for new businesses and the construction or renovation of buildings in the downtown district. The DSDA proposed this program, although it took the city to enact it, Muldrew points out. The authority also proposed design guidelines, which were adopted by the city, for downtown buildings.

"For us to be successful, we've got to have a city manager, a mayor and council that understand what we're doing and support it, which we do have," he said.

Hotel-motel funding

The city has assigned 19.9 percent of Statesboro's hotel-motel tax revenue to the DSDA. This share has been projected at $174,000 for the fiscal year that began July 1, up from about $160,000 last year. The city provides the authority other funding of $80,000 annually.

The DSDA hosts monthly events, mostly outdoor First Fridays, designed to attract people to downtown throughout the year. The Mainstreet Farmers Market is also administered through the DSDA.

Office Manager-Event Coordinator Elena McLendon and Muldrew are the DSDA's only full-time employees. They are assisted by a series of Georgia Southern interns, mainly public relations students in their senior year.

A nine-member board oversees the authority's work. The current chair is Mary Foreman, owner of Wise Choice Realty.

She agreed with Muldrew that the board is strongly supportive and that the staff works hard to be prepared for opportunities.

"I'd like to say how much Elena and Allen do for our downtown and for the board," Foreman said. "They do an excellent job. They should be given lots and lots more credit than they have."

They and the interns "have done tremendous amounts with the time and efforts they put in," she said.

When the Georgia Exceptional Main Streets status was created in 2014, communities had to apply to be considered. But the format has been changed so that every Main Street program can be considered based on its annual self-assessment, said Jessica Reynolds, director of the Office of Downtown Development at the Georgia DCA. The Main Street organizations also submit monthly community activity reports.

GEMS programs gain access to special technical services offered by the Office of Downtown Development, such as strategic planning sessions and board retreats, as well as scholarships or discounted rates for training and design services.

"For us, the GEMS communities that we've designated, we really want them to stand out in people's minds," Reynolds said. "So when we say, 'Oh, Statesboro is a GEMS community,' we want someone to say, 'Yes, that makes sense. They've done a lot; they're a stellar example of what a great historic downtown looks like and should feel like.'

"And I think that Statesboro definitely exemplifies that in every way, shape or form," she said.

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



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