The woman who made "sweet iced tea" Statesboro's calling card to America, Phyllis H. Thompson, is retiring Dec. 31 as Statesboro-Bulloch Chamber of Commerce president.
But – as comes as no surprise – she plans to remain active in community life.
"I certainly do believe the best is yet to come for our community," Thompson said earlier this month during her final annual chamber meeting as president.
She called the Chamber of Commerce "an ally" which connects businesses to people and resources to get things done and "an agent of change" helping "to shape a community that people and businesses want to be in." Since soon after she took the job nine years ago, she kept a red folder with goals to make the organization "respected, reliable, responsive" and financially healthy.
"I believe together we have achieved this," Thompson said, emphasizing teamwork of staff, board and membership.
She came to the chamber staff in the president's role, succeeding Peggy Chapman, at the beginning of 2011.
Before that, Thompson worked 23 years in physician recruitment and physician relations first with the hospital that became East Georgia Regional Medical Center and next for its then-parent company, Health Management Associates, regionally and nationally. Before that, she was for a few years communications director for the Bulloch County Board of Education, and before that, a Statesboro Herald journalist and a Georgia Southern student.
ABC and iced tea
The sweet iced tea thing originated in the spring of 2016, when Thompson, Bob Mikell as a Blue Mile Committee member, and Mandi Cody, then the city's planning and development director, served as Statesboro's point team in the corporate-sponsored America's Best Communities competition.
As they finished their pitch of the Blue Mile revitalization project in the semifinals in Durham, North Carolina, Thompson invited the ABC judges and audience to Statesboro for a glass of sweet iced tea. She repeated the invitation, as part of a different point team, for the championship reveal in Denver, Colorado, in April 2017.
There, Statesboro was announced as winner of the $ 1 million third-place prize, having already been selected on the submitted plan for the revitalization of South Main Street and the surrounding area. That prize became seed money for continuing efforts overseen by the nonprofit Blue Mile Foundation Inc., of which Thompson is, as a volunteer, secretary and treasurer.
In turn, the Creek on the Blue Mile project was conceived as an outgrowth of the Blue Mile Plan and has now received commitments of separate, greater funding from the state of Georgia and backing from the city of Statesboro.
"I think that project gave everybody a chance to feel like they could be a part of it and that it was a worthy project, and that the contest was 30 months maybe gave the hint, too, that revitalization doesn't happen overnight," Thompson said in an interview last week.
Comparing the potential to the 1906 “Fabulous 50” trip to Savannah that confirmed Statesboro as the location of First District A&M School – which grew to be Georgia Southern University – she said she felt that the Blue Mile could be the next big thing.
"When we got on that plane to go to Durham, I thought, this must be what it feels like for a football team to go for a championship," Thompson said. "You know, the weight of the community is on your shoulders. You don't want to let anybody down. But it was just so much fun, and it engaged Georgia Southern students too."
The South Main Street revitalization drive, led by volunteers from local businesses and expanded beyond the Chamber of Commerce, started with discussions during an annual leadership conference hosted by the chamber in February 2012. Construction company owner Keely Fennell, who served as Chamber of Commerce chair in 2012, and banking executive Darron Burnette, the 2014 chamber chair, then served as co-chairs of the Blue Mile Committee, which involved leaders other businesses and the Downtown Statesboro Development Authority.
"And they did not let it go. ... There were a lot of great partners, but the chamber was the glue," Thompson said.
She even gives someone else credit for the “sweet iced tea” zinger. Mikell suggested it when ABC organizers asked the competing teams to say something unforgettable about their communities in five words or less.
But Thompson was the one who made it an invitation to visit, in her best Boro drawl.
"She was the only presenter from any community that received a standing ovation by her competitors," Fennell said during the Dec. 2 chamber luncheon. "At the end of the ABC competition, which took three years, she helped to put Statesboro, Georgia, on the map."
Mentor to many
Serving with nine different chamber boards, 45 executive officers 180 program chairs and co-chairs and about 900 committee members, Thompson provided mentorship to many members and transformed "a financially stressed chamber into a chamber in solid financial condition," Fennell proclaimed.
"On behalf of the past Statesboro-Bulloch County Chamber chairmen, I'm asking you to raise your glass of sweet iced tea in honor of our president, Phyllis Thompson, one last time," Fennell said, and chamber members did, as she added, "We love you, Phyllis."
Earlier in that same meeting, Thompson had Membership Manager Roxanne Kibler, who is also retiring Dec. 31 and has worked 17 years for the chamber, stand for applause. The chamber hosted an afternoon-long Dec. 17 farewell reception for them both.
By Thursday, Thompson's desk was nearly empty except for some flowers from well-wishers and her clear crystal nameplate with the chamber logo. It was a gift from her late husband, David, and she said it will probably be the last thing to go as she packs.
Originally Phyllis Hardeman, she was born and raised in Savannah, but came to Georgia Southern as a student and attained a Bachelor of Arts in English in 1981 and a Bachelor of Science in journalism in 1982. She and David Thompson, from St. Marys, met in journalism class and were married, also in 1982. After a 30-year career, he retired from Georgia Southern as director of communications for University Advancement.
David Thompson was 63 when he died one year ago this week from heart disease.
"Phenomenal" is the word Phyllis Thompson uses to describe the support the community showed through her husband's illness and in her grief.
"I was never alone," she said, "I mean, literally and figuratively. I have not been alone throughout the biggest losses and throughout the biggest gains that I have had in my life in Statesboro and Bulloch County. You know, the losses are so much more bearable and the wins are so much more enjoyable when they are shared."
"You know, this community is family, and you cannot know the depth of that through wins alone, through victories alone," she added.
In retirement, Thompson will attend to some family responsibilities at Savannah and Louisville, she said. But she plans to keep her home at Statesboro.
She will continue to serve as a Blue Mile Foundation officer and as a moderator of the Lectionary Sunday School class at Pittman Park United Methodist Church.
She also said she has been approached by the current CEO of East Georgia Regional Medical Center, which is now a Community Health Systems hospital, "to assist, on a part-time, as needed basis, with the hospital's continued growth."
As previously reported, the Statesboro-Bulloch Chamber of Commerce has hired Skip Alford, who has experience as a chamber executive in Florida, to succeed Thompson as its president beginning Jan. 6.