The dream is a reality. On Wednesday, November 16th in Jones Lane Park across U.S. Highway 301 from the main entrance to Georgia Southern, ground was broken on the Gateway to The Blue Mile, a stretch of South Main Street linking the University to downtown Statesboro. The initiative began with an idea tossed around at a Chamber of Commerce leadership retreat in 2012, and centered on improving the one mile stretch to make it a more inviting link between Statesboro’s two most distinguishing areas.
A local committee of South Main Street business owners and community stakeholders led by former Chamber presidents Darren Burnette and Keely Fennell was formed to address the possibilities for improvement of the area. Mayor Jan J. Moore and Georgia Southern President Jaimie Hebert met to discuss a “town and gown” partnership to address the goals established by a Downtown Statesboro Development Authority (DSDA) Master Plan for improving downtown Statesboro.
Former Georgia Southern University President Brooks Keel credited Mayor Moore with coming up with a name for the corridor targeted in the Master Plan as an area in need of improvement – The Blue Mile.
The South Main Street Revitalization Committee has been working with not only the City of Statesboro and Georgia Southern as partners, but with buy-in from Ogeechee Technical College, the Chamber of Commerce, the Averitt Center for the Arts, the Bulloch County Board of Commissioners, the Board of Education, the Downtown Statesboro Development Authority, the Bulloch County Development Authority, the Statesboro Convention & Visitors Bureau, private businesses, interested citizens, and others.
The committee has been using data collected by University students who surveyed business and property owners to determine the needs and desires of community members in redeveloping and revitalizing the South Main Street corridor. The area was determined to be far more than a one mile stretch of highway that needed reinvestment attention. It was determined that The Blue Mile is a gateway to downtown for students, visitors and tourists that serves as the welcome mat to the community as a whole. The Blue Mile should not only provide an attractive entrance to the City, it should reflect the character of the community because it is the historic center of commerce, the arts and government for Bulloch County.
The South Main Committee (the name condensed for quick reference by all), also considered the City of Statesboro’s Master Plan, the City and County’s Long Range Transportation Plan, the DSDA Master Plan and the Tax Allocation District (TAD) Revitalization Plan to determine what the community wanted most for the area. It was unmistakable that the number one request from the public was for more pedestrian friendly access – walkways, bike trails, and crosswalks.
The committee has also been on the road visiting other Southern cities that have undertaken revitalization projects throughout their downtowns. Members traveled to North Augusta, Greenville, and Spartanburg, S.C., and other towns to see firsthand how reinvestment in infrastructure in those cities spurred privately funded redevelopment by property owners and outside investors. Members came back with a list of great ideas for community improvement projects, but no immediate funding for the initiatives.
Providentially, local Frontier Communications General Manager Jaclyn Cason put Statesboro’s name “into the hat” for a nationwide best communities contest.
In 2015, Statesboro was chosen as a quarterfinalist in the America’s Best Communities (ABC) competition. Sponsored by DISH Network, Frontier Communications, CoBank and the Weather Channel, the $10 million prize competition was formed to stimulate growth and revitalization in small cities and towns across Frontier’s 27-state footprint. Picked as one of the top 50 communities, Statesboro received a cash prize of $50,000 to be used to develop and implement comprehensive strategies to accelerate the local economy and improve the quality of life in the community.
The contest couldn’t have come along at a better time.
The ABC Committee made up of representatives from many of the same organizations as the South Main group, used the resources to create a Community Revitalization Plan. Representatives from the City of Statesboro, the Chamber, the DSDA, and Georgia Southern worked together on a presentation for the next level of competition in the contest making their winning pitch in February of 2016. Statesboro was awarded an additional $100,000 and rose to become one of 15 semi-finalists with a chance to become one of the top three winners of the most innovative and effective proposals for community improvement in the nation.
The top three winners will be announced in April 2017 and awarded a total of $6 million in grand prizes with the #1 community receiving $3 million. Breaking ground on the Gateway to The Blue Mile gets Statesboro one step closer to the top prize.
Mayor Moore stated, “If you ask someone what is the most beautiful image of Georgia Southern, almost without exception they mention the drive into Sweetheart Circle. I would like the entrance to our city - South Main - to be as beautiful and inviting as the road leading into Sweetheart Circle. There is never a second chance to make a first impression to a potential student and their family, to an industrial prospect, or to a visitor that may choose to bring their talents and energy to our community.
“We are already seeing redevelopment along South Main since we started The Blue Mile initiative - the Visitors Center, Southern Palace, Three Tree Coffee, Little Italy Pizza, and the recently announced multi-million dollar expansion by AgSouth Farm Credit. I think there is a momentum building and it is encouraging to see community stakeholders making investments along our main thoroughfare. I am proud to see folks are recognizing the true importance of a redeveloped South Main Street as an inviting, business and entertainment district for all ages.”
Businesses and private investors taking a look at South Main will want to consider opportunities and incentives being developed by the City of Statesboro. The DSDA offers some assistance with façade grants and Sea Island Bank offers special interest rates for businesses opening in the Main Street District of Statesboro. With the encouragement of the Downtown Statesboro Development Authority and the Mayor and City Council, voters passed the Redevelopment Powers Act in 2014, which authorized Statesboro to create Tax Allocation Districts or TADs in the city.
As public improvements and private investment take place in a TAD, the taxable value of property increases. The city/county collects those revenues, putting the increase due to the new investment into a special fund to pay off bonds or loans that financed the public improvements in the district.
The TAD plan states the goal is “to encourage the private redevelopment of outmoded, highway oriented commercial development into pedestrian friendly, mixed use centers to achieve the vision set forth in the 2011 City of Statesboro Downtown Master Plan and the 2014 Comprehensive Plan.” The TAD is becoming a great tool in reclaiming and improving the visual appeal of South Main.
As properties are developed and funds are available for improvements to sidewalks, for the creation of bike paths and green spaces, for art installations and for an inviting gateway; a greater variety of investors are attracted to The Blue Mile and Statesboro’s growth in a positive direction is assured for the future.