On the job two months now as Statesboro's planning and development director, Frank A. Neal Jr. sees more exciting growth taking place now than when he last worked for the city of Statesboro in the same department.
Neal was first a Statesboro city planner from November 1995 until April 1999. After 17 years away, working in development from both the government and private enterprise sides in places such as Hilton Head, S.C., and Grovetown in metro Augusta, Neal was hired to head Statesboro's six-person Planning and Development Department. He succeeded Mandi Cody as its director after she left to become Metter's city manager in May.
Having started work July 21, by last week Neal sounded informed and enthusiastic about Statesboro's trends in business and housing.
"I think we've got a good, healthy mix of both residential and commercial development that's taking place, which is exciting for the city as we continue to grow," he said.
Businesses on the way
On the commercial side, Neal mentioned a trio of new food places generating a lot of interest: Krispy Kreme and Panda Express, which are nearing completion, and Little Italy Pizza, which the department's project list shows as "foundation poured, working fast."
But restaurants aren't the only new things on the business horizon, he noted. Dunham's Sports, a large sporting goods chain with most of its stores concentrated in the Midwest, is creating a Statesboro store through a $350,000 renovation of the former Food Lion supermarket space in Southern Square, the shopping center that includes Kmart.
On the residential side, the biggest thing underway right now is Beacon Place on S&S Railroad Bed Road. Listed as a $9 million building project, it is planned to include 40 one-bedroom and 136 two-bedroom apartments in townhouse configurations.
The city also has a request for an expansion of an existing planned neighborhood to include some new homes, and some apartment buildings owners with plans to expand, but which have yet to submit their plans.
The value of in-fill
Meanwhile, private developers, and recently also Habitat for Humanity, have been completing some residential redevelopment and in-fill projects, building apartments and houses on lots in existing neighborhoods, mainly in the South Main Street corridor.
In every community where he has worked in planning and development, Neal said, he has talked about the desirability of in-fill projects to local governments.
"It's the type of development we like because it doesn't cost the city as much," he said. "We're not having to build new roads to property out in the country, we're not having to extend utilities, because guess what, it's all there already. We've already made that investment so it's just new additions to our tax base."
He said he sees "tremendous opportunity for redevelopment in the city limits, for sure."
Meanwhile, such projects as the Averitt Center for the Arts' creation of new studios in existing downtown buildings and the Innovation Incubator and Fabrication Laboratory that just opened at Georgia Southern University's downtown City Campus add to the interesting growth mix.
"I think these are all very positive," Neal said. "These are things I didn't see when I was here in the 90s. There's a lot of positive growth that has taken place while I've been gone, and I think it's going to continue to move forward."
Grovetown and back
Neal is originally from Augusta. After receiving a bachelor's degree at the University of Georgia, he attained his Master of Public Administration from Georgia Southern in 1993. He did additional graduate work at the University of Memphis, and then at UGA's Carl Vinson Institute of Government completed the Certified Public Manager program in 1999 and the Certified Local Government Financial Officer program in August 2015.
In the late 1990s, he was city planner under the supervision of Joseph Mosley, who was Statesboro's first planning and development director. For part of Neal's first Statesboro stint, he doubled as director of the Downtown Statesboro Development Authority, now a separate agency with its own staff.
After leaving here, he was Community Services Division director for Columbia County for almost four years. Then Neal left government work for 10 years beginning in 2003.
During that time, he was architectural review board administrator for the exclusive, private Haig Point development on Daufuskie Island, S.C., for four years. Licensed as a commercial contractor, he then went out on his own as CEO of The Neal Group Inc., based at Hilton Head, doing construction, planning and development until 2013. He built mostly high-end homes and commercial projects.
In March 2013, Neal was hired by Grovetown as a city planner. Promoted to be Grovetown's first planning and development director, he remained in that post until he returned to Statesboro in July. At the gates of Fort Gordon, which in 2013 was selected as home of the U.S. Army's Cyber Command, Grovetown has become the fastest growing city in the Augusta metro area. From about 3,500 people in 1990 and just over 6,000 in 2000, Grovetown had swollen to more than 13,000 people in a 2015 Census Bureau estimate.
Neal headed a city planning department of five people there as they dealt with a boom in new businesses, as well as housing.
Advice to builders
Here, Neal heads a Planning and Development Department that also includes administrative assistant Debra Wiese, development project manager Cindy Clifton, planning and development specialist Candra Teshome and code compliance officers Mike Chappel and Scott Brunson.
When zoning changes or variances are required, Neal and other Planning and Development staffers develop recommendations and carry applications through the process with the Development Commission and City Council.
Neal's advice to builders and developers is to come to City Hall to discuss their project as soon in the planning as possible.
"You're going to find the city is very easy to work with," he said. "I think we've got a lot of good professionals on staff. Some of them have been here a long time and have a lot of history about what's in the area, so they may be able to bring light to some things that they're not aware of as a builder or developer."
With the Right Start program started during Cody's tenure, staff members from other city departments, from engineering to water and sanitation, can be scheduled to meet with a builder or business owner to discuss what will be required to make a vision a reality