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Statesboro tourism office set to move to new home
New visitors center to open by Aug. 11
Visitors Center - Exterior
This photo taken July 16 shows the exterior of renovated former Shoney's restaurant on South Main Street, soon to be home to the Statesboro Convention and Visitors Bureau. - photo by AL HACKLE/Staff

Next week will be moving week for the Statesboro Convention and Visitors Bureau, whose new visitors center will feature a Georgia Southern Museum on Main and a parking area large enough for a camper trailer or bus.

With 4,600 square feet of available interior space, the repurposed former Shoney's restaurant more than doubles the size of the SCVB's old location, which is in a house farther down South Main Street. The new visitors center also has a much larger parking lot, open to some highway frontage. In contrast, the old place had one row of parking in back, accessed by single-lane driveways on either side.

The center will increase visibility and access and could set an example for how vacant buildings on South Main Street can be made attractive and new, SCVB 2014-15 President Darin Van Tassell said.

"We're hopeful that we're not just changing what used to be there into something that's brand new but that it also dominoes into some other areas, and I think we're starting to see that," he said.

SCVB Executive Director Heidi Jeffers was busy Wednesday making arrangements for the move. The new center will mean more work space for the staff, which currently includes two full-time and two part-time employees and one volunteer.

"We are so excited about the move to the new visitors center," Jeffers said. "We hope to be open and operating in our new center by Aug. 11. We will be available by phone during the move."

With a front porch and other exposed wood and antiqued-stone accents, the remodeled building resembles the former restaurant only in outline. The Shoney's building, once valued at more than $1 million when it housed a thriving restaurant, sat vacant since closing in December 2010 and became property of Heritage Bank of the South, which sold it to the SCVB last December for a reported cost of $240,000.

Sea Island Bank provided one of its low-interest South Main revitalization loans for the project.

The purchase, plus the renovations, bring the bureau's investment in the new building to roughly $400,000, according to SCVB Past President Andy Bhula. Decision-making for the move began in Bhula's 2013-14 term, with Barry Turner, who was 2012-13 SCVB president, involved as a steering committee member.

The SCVB sold its previous home, at 332 S. Main St., two months ago. This made the proceeds available for the project, but the bureau then had to pay rent on the old place for June and July.

Museum on Main

As a visit to the new place with Van Tassell and Bhula revealed, the lobby has been transformed as dramatically as the exterior. The front entrance is now in the middle of the building, where the wood-framed glass door is one rescued from the nearby Trellis Garden Inn, now being demolished by its owner, Statesboro First United Methodist Church.

A hotel-style reception desk occupies the focal point of the lobby. To the visitor's right will be what is at least tentatively being called the Museum on Main.

The Statesboro Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Georgia Southern University Museum, the GSU history department and the city of Statesboro, together, are seeking a $20,000 grant from the Georgia Department of Economic Development to complete the museum, which will include a permanent exhibit showcasing Bulloch County history, plus an area for exhibits that will change from time to time, as planned by GSU graduate students in the public history program.

Van Tassell spoke to Statesboro City Council at last week's meeting and obtained the council's unanimous backing for the grant application. A matching amount of $20,000 in local resources has already been supplied by the city through work on the visitors center, he said.

For the permanent part of the Museum on Main exhibit, organizers have searched for an item that can become an branding image, instantly recognizable in the way that the mosasaur is for the campus museum, GSU Museum Director Dr. Brent Tharp said. The likely choice is a turpentine wagon, originally purchased from the old Akins Hardware Store in the 1920s and donated to the GSU Museum by the late Neil Dunn.

"We've never had a great location to exhibit it, and so it's been in storage since it was donated, and we're thrilled now," Tharp said. "It probably, itself, rolled up and down South Main Street, and so it seems a great, iconic artifact to center the exhibit around."

A studio chair from Rustin Photography Studios, which operated in Statesboro in the early 20th century, is also being restored. One proposal is to allow visitors to sit in the chair and have their pictures taken while surrounded with historic photos, he added.

As part of the cooperative arrangement, a GSU graduate student in history will join the SCVB staff as an intern.
Only the SCVB staff is moving in beginning Monday. Other aspects of the visitors center will take longer to develop.

An Ogeechee Technical College display has also been proposed. An electrical car charging station and an RV parking area with a sewer connection are planned for the parking lot. A visitors center sign — the exact type yet to be determined — will replace the restaurant sign.

The center, like the work of the bureau, will have regional reach, according to Jeffers.

"The 4,600-square-foot regional facility will feature information on our community attractions, lodging, dining and shopping opportunities," she said. "Because we are a regional center, we also feature attractions from throughout Georgia."

Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.


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