Two U.S. Department of Commerce officials came to downtown Statesboro on Thursday and ceremonially presented local officials the $2 million grant for an expansion of Georgia Southern University's downtown City Center, including its Business Incubator.
Since Statesboro's mayor and council agreed last January for the city to provide a $500,000 required local contribution, the project has a $2.5 million budget. The general plan is to renovate 64 East Main St. and a portion of a neighboring building as added space for the university's Business Innovation Group, or BIG.
The concept will also create a training and conference space, which has been called a "mini-civic center" facing across Railroad Street toward East Main Street and Savannah Avenue.
The Downtown Statesboro Development Authority, or DSDA, which owns the 12,000-square-foot 64 E. Main St. building, was the official applicant for the $2 million grant. But the university, the city and the DSDA cooperated in the proposal, as they have done with the GS City Center, originally called City Campus, since it was conceived a decade ago.
"When we say Georgia Southern is ready to power, serve and transform lives within our communities, the region and beyond, projects like this are the exact epitome of what we mean," said GS President Kyle Marrero. "Here we are … partnering with the Downtown Statesboro Development Authority and the city of Statesboro to fuel opportunities for the people of this region."
The first official to speak during Thursday's ceremony, he noted that the expansion is projected to contribute to the creation of more than 300 jobs in the region and have an economic impact of more than $40 million over nine years.
BIG, an extension of the university's Parker College of Business, provides information, specialized classes and other support for businesses and makes rentable, shared workspace and product-development equipment available to innovators and start-ups.
The expansion will be Phase 3 in the City Center's development and the second time it has benefited from construction funding obtained through the U.S. Economic Development Administration, a part of the Commerce Department. A $1 million EDA grant went into the creation of the center.
Phase 2 of the original project, completed in 2016, added the Fabrication Lab and Business and Arts Incubator.
The Fab Lab and Business Incubator fill 62 E. Main St., while BIG's offices and classrooms occupy most of the front of 58 E. Main. In back, facing Vine Street, the Averitt Center for the Arts operates the arts incubator as the Roxie Remley Center for Fine Arts.
So with the new project, BIG will be expanding into a third downtown building.
The federal officials who presented the big check were Joel Frushone, director of external affairs and communications for the EDA, and Anthony Foti, acting Commerce Department assistant secretary for legislative and intergovernmental affairs.
To date, almost $800 million in EDA grants have gone to 522 opportunity zones across the country, Frushone said. The opportunity zone program were created under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, signed into law by President Donald Trump in 2017, and Frushone said the area has Sen. David Perdue, Sen. Kelly Loeffler and U.S. Rep. Rick Allen "to thank for bringing those dollars home."
Almost all of Statesboro, as well as Georgia Southern's main campus and a large section of Bulloch County, are within opportunity zones designated in April 2018. The program creates tax advantages for investments within the zones, but EDA grants are not restricted to opportunity zones.
Foti brought greetings on behalf of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and President Trump and alluded to the fact that the grant was part of a $587 million disaster relief allocation approved after Hurricane Michael in 2018.
"Coupled with the impacts of that hurricane, as well as the coronavirus pandemic, you've faced no doubt many obstacles, as have many folks throughout our nation," Foti said. "So today, I'm very pleased to announce that the Department of Commerce through the Economic Development Administration is awarding a $2 million grant to the Downtown Statesboro Development Authority to expand this vital business incubator facility."
Before the presentation, BIG Director Dominique Halaby had guided the federal officials on a tour of the City Center and expansion space. Foti said they learned that "the expanded facility will have a profound impact on small businesses' ability to recover from future disasters."
DSDA Chair Frank D'Arcangelo thanked Marrero for the university's "vision" and continued support for the City Center and Halaby for its growth and success.
"This vision not only continues to bring students, adults and budding entrepreneurs into the downtown, it gives the general public a chance to interact with Georgia Southern University without having to navigate the main campus," D'Arcangelo said.
Also thanking city officials, DSDA executive director Allen Muldrew, office manager Elena McLendon and board members, he noted that the City Center was originally a DSDA initiative.
"More than 10 years ago it was the inspiration of the Downtown Statesboro Development Authority and a small group of business leaders to bring Georgia Southern to downtown," said D'Arcangelo.
Mayor Jonathan McCollar noted that City Council's approval for the $500,000 local share was unanimous after the proposal was presented in January.
"What we quickly realized was that this was too good not to act on," he said. "Our City Council recognized the opportunity the City Campus classroom and business expansion would offer our downtown Statesboro."
In January, City Manager Charles Penny had discussed the local contribution in terms of the city potentially paying the $500,000 from its general fund, provided in part by property taxes. But the city staff later identified $500,000 in Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax revenue, including some remaining from the 2013 SPLOST referendum years and more coming in now from the 2019 SPLOST, so no general fund cash will be needed, Penny said Friday.
No final plan yet
But so far, local officials do not have an exact timeline or detailed plans for the project.
"At this point they just got the grant award," Penny said. "There's still a lot of work to be done; the architectural firm has to be selected."
What was presented in January was a concept, including a sketch of the façade and the description of converting 64 E. Main from "an eyesore to a strong visual marker to the eastern entry to downtown" and "a mini civic center" and training space for use by local businesses and the city, as well as the university business programs.
The EDA generally allows three years on a project, and the timing depends on the type of design the architect develops and coordination among the agencies involved, Halaby said Friday.
"But hopefully, because we have such an amazing community and a lot of excited leadership, we can shave on that timeline," he said. "I'm hopeful that construction can start some time around the end of 2021 and be completed by the fall of 2022."