Start with an enormous amount of passion for the community, add in a huge helping of cooperation and a hefty portion of persistence, a gigantic share of hard work, and just an ounce or two of “crazy” and the result is a recipe for a successful revitalization project on the south side of Statesboro, now known as The Blue Mile.
It all began in 2012 at the Statesboro-Bulloch County Community Leadership Conference, hosted by the Chamber of Commerce, though hints of the project’s need surfaced several years before that.
Annually, the Leadership Conference takes place to bring together local leaders in government, business, education and nonprofits to address challenges and opportunities facing the community, selecting one to address that will benefit Statesboro and Bulloch County.
“The deterioration of South Main Street had been mentioned several times,” said Phyllis Thompson, Statesboro-Bulloch County Chamber of Commerce president. “People recognized the need to address that issue and get it on the ballot.”
Construction company owner Keely Fennell, Chamber of Commerce chair in 2012, added, “Like all true leaders, sometimes we seem to talk about an issue and hope it gets resolved in other ways. But South Main, that’s the front door of our community, and it had deteriorated so much.”
Fennell said those that attend the conference each year are the “powers that be” of the community, and those that “want to make a difference in the community.”
The unsightliness of the corridor from the entrance of Georgia Southern on South Main Street, all the way to downtown Statesboro was a topic at several yearly conferences. In 2012, Fennell said that she happened to be sitting next to banking executive Darron Burnette, who later served as the 2014 chamber chair, during the conversation of the eyesore that area had become.
“Darron turned to me and said, ‘Let’s try to fix this.’ And I told him he was crazy and that I would help,” she said.
From that comment, a spark flickered that soon turned into a blazing fire of passion for the success of the project. Also like all true leaders, conference attendees decided they needed a committee. Participants formed the South Main Street Revitalization Committee with the purpose of bringing vitality and economic prosperity back to South Main Street, and Burnette and Fennell agreed to lead the initiative as co-chairs.
The team quickly became a conglomeration of individuals and entities who came on board with dedication and great gusto to get the job done. The group was comprised of local business and community leaders; the Chamber of Commerce; Georgia Southern University, Ogeechee Technical College; the Bulloch County Board of Commissioners; the Bulloch County Board of Educators; the Downtown Statesboro Development Authority; Habitat for Humanity; the city of Statesboro; private citizens, and many others.
A year into the project, conveniently – or maybe divinely – a nationwide competition was introduced that would change the course of the project drastically. The America’s Best Communities competition, launched by Frontier Communications, DISH, CoBank, and The Weather Channel, was a three-year competition that encouraged and rewarded economic revitalization in small towns and cities.
“We had a head start,” said Fennell. “We’d already been working for a year. During the process, we decided to name that corridor The Blue Mile – and not just a mile – it stretches over to South College and Zetterower and goes from the city limits on 301 South through North Main Street.”
“We initially focused on ways that connected existing strengths with opportunities for revitalization,” said Thompson. “We knew we had some anchors, Performing Arts Center, Georgia Southern, downtown. We knew if we strengthened downtown, if we made downtown more vibrant, we’d increase job opportunities. If we enhanced visuals and true experience of Georgia Southern, parents of students coming here would pour back into the community.”
The team found several great needs for the area that addressed infrastructure improvements, like sidewalks, storm drains, and power lines; economic development that included the recruitment of new businesses to the area; housing improvement in that corridor; introduction of parks and green space, an initiative for more parks in the future and other issues.
“I like to win and I like to write,” said Thompson about the copious amount of paperwork required for the competition.
From 350 communities originally competing for the prize money, the number dwindled to 50, then 15, then 8, then three eventually, and Statesboro took home the $1 million third-place prize, which became the seed money to complete the projects outlined by The Blue Mile Committee.
Since that original spark of an idea, The Blue Mile Committee, with support and help from the community has accomplished much. Thompson, Fennell and Burnette are quick to give others the credit for the accomplishments, but the project never could have taken off without their drive, expertise and hard work.
“It’s way more than the three of us,” said Thompson. “The people on this team worked together. There always seemed to develop an opportunity for somebody’s strengths to do the job needed at that time. Our community worked together, and it’s a great example that other communities can do this. Our plan can be replicated. It was a whole lot of people that came together at the right time to get the job done.”
In fact, the group is always looking for additional members, who all serve as volunteers.
“We meet the last Friday of the month, at 10 a.m., at Joe Brannen Hall on East Main, next to City Hall,” said Fennell. “Everybody has a place on The Blue Mile Committee. That’s what is so exciting. Everybody on board wants to make a difference in our community.
“And the community has been so supportive,” said Fennell. “Most everybody has been very encouraging and asks how they can help.”
What’s on the horizon for The Blue Mile Committee? Another huge project: The Creek on the Blue Mile.
“One of the ideas that came from the committee to make the community shine,” said Fennell.
“It’s a $30 million dollar project, paid for, and we couldn’t have gotten that without the visibility and credibility statewide for winning the contest,” said Burnette. “We gained far more from the contest than we ever imagined.”
The Creek project is a linear park idea modeled after Frederick, Maryland’s Carroll Creek Linear Park, and includes plans for interactive water features along the creek, waterfront business locations, entertainment zones, an amphitheater, pedestrian bridges and more.
The Creek on Blue Mile is an ambitious project, but if past experiences with The Blue Mile Committee supporters and leaders are any indication, the project holds great promise. With just a dab or two of “crazy” and a whole lot of determination and passion, it’s a recipe for success most certainly.