Considering that TravelCenters of America’s planned TA Express center off U.S. Highway 301 at the I-16 interchange isn’t an industry, the groundbreaking Wednesday morning drew an unusual amount of attention from local officials and media.
What it will be is a combination of a truck stop for professional drivers and a convenience store, fueling center and Burger King for the general public.
But as Bulloch County Manager Tom Couch and Board of Commissioners Chairman Roy Thompson expressed in their comments Wednesday, after years of hopes, the county was ready to welcome the first private investment in the Tax Allocation District that has existed around the interchange since Dec. 31, 2012.
“We especially embrace your presence here,” Couch said to the TravelCenters of America, or “TA,” corporate representatives. “You are the first significant new development in an 1,800-acre area planned around the interstate as primarily a business district that we tried to put the seeds down for probably a decade ago, and we’re confident that you’re going to be a catalyst for some additional business growth.”
Together, the county government and the city of Statesboro – which extended its water, sewer and natural gas systems far beyond the city limits to serve the interchange – have invested at least $17 million in public infrastructure within the tax allocation district, or TAD. The 1,800 acres on all four quadrants of the interchange is mostly private land, but the public spending has been directed to preparing the roughly 200-acre portion now known as Southern Gateway Commerce Park, in the southeastern quadrant.
The Bulloch County Board of Commissioners approved the purchase of that 200-acre tract using Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax funds back in 2010, before the TAD was created.
In 2018, two industrial-grade roads were paved from Highway 301 into the commerce park. Rocky Road, the one farther from Interstate 16, extends past the commerce park water tower, the farthest extension of the city water system, to a paved turn-around. The TA Express location is on the other paved road segment, within sight of the interstate highway.
Obtaining state grants, the county also had a portion Highway 301 widened to include turn lanes into and out of the commerce park and leveled the land to provide “pad ready” sites, mainly for industries. But 10 years after voters in a referendum granted the county special redevelopment powers and nine years after the TAD was formally established, and with all of that work done, the industries have yet to arrive.
“I want all of you to look that way,” Thompson, the county commissioners chairman, said at the microphone under the meeting tent. “What do you see? To most of y’all it’s a big, barren field, correct? But I see, once y’all get started, which you already have, a bunch of industry filling this whole area.”
He told the TravelCenters of America representatives their company would always be the commerce park’s first arrival and he wished them much success.
TA’s Vice President for Corporate Development Dennis King noted that 2022 will be TravelCenters of America’s 50th anniversary year. The new TA Express center at the U.S. 301 and I-16 interchange is expected to be open and operating within the year, by next fall, he said.
“This is a really important location for Travel Centers of America,” King said before the ceremony. “We’re really excited to partner with Bulloch County and Statesboro. We’re in the early stages of a transformation here, and this is a big part of it. This is our network expansion, and this is one of the first ground-up builds that we’ve had at TA in years, so this is a very, very important location for us.”
TravelCenters of America operates about 276 locations in 44 states and Canada, mainly under the TA, Petro Stopping Centers and TA Express brands. The company introduced the TA Express label in 2018, and this will be just the second TA Express in Georgia. The first is on I-85 at West Point.
TA Express centers are generally somewhat smaller than the traditional TA locations. But the one here will include the Burger King, with a drive-thru, in the main building, which of course will also be a convenience store. The center will have a lounge and showers for professional truck drivers and also a separate three-bay truck service center, King said.
Restrooms for the general public will be of a new design, and the company plans to install improved Wi-Fi for customers’ use, he said.
Company officials said the center will have eight to 10 diesel fueling lanes in back and perhaps eight gasoline dispensing positions in front and may also include some electric-vehicle charging stations. But the exact details remain subject to change. The company and its general contractor, Connor & Gaskins Unlimited LLC, are still working through the permitting process with the county.
The TA Express could employ 80 to 100 people, many part-time and some full-time, to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, King said. The Burger King will not operate 24-seven, but “grab and go” food items will be available in the convenience store overnight, he said.
Bruce Yawn, who now chairs the Development Authority of Bulloch County, or DABC, traced the creation of the TAD and commerce park back to a community retreat in Savannah about 14 years ago. Thompson, then a county commissioner but not yet the chairman, had said there that Bulloch County needed to do something to promote future development at I-16.
““Well, today, the future is here,” Yawn said.
Last summer, TA Operating LLC purchased a 19.4-acre parcel inside the commerce park from the DABC for $1.36 million. The DABC and county have not provided any special incentives to the company. As the Development Authority’s CEO, Benjy Thompson, has noted, the DABC’s main mission is to promote industrial development, not retail trade.
“Certainly having the fuel center here is going to bring more attention to the interchange, not just locally but throughout the region, throughout the state,” he said. “We believe the travel center will be complimentary to whatever industrial recruitment we do at Southern Gateway, or anywhere up and down this corridor.”
Two Statesboro City Council members and several city staff members also attended the ceremony.
“Having a facility such as TravelCenters of America at that interchange is big for Bulloch County and the city of Statesboro,” Assistant City Manager Jason Boyles said later. “It allows people a destination to be able to stop at, either passing through the county on I-16 or coming on through town on Highway 301 … and as the industrial park begins to develop out in the very near future, that facility will serve those surrounding industries.”