"It takes a lot of people pulling in the right direction to create opportunity in a region- and that's what we have right now."
Statesboro, Georgia is still riding high from their million-dollar win last year, but claiming one of the America's Best Communities prizes was no small feat- we're talking about 30 months of identifying challenges, hard work, and small victories that led to the big finish. Allen Muldrew, Executive Director of the Downtown Development Authority, explains how the city and county are continuing to evolve and work toward continued community success. "We just finished a downtown revitalization project. People like living downtown, so we are working to increase home ownership and residential opportunity in the downtown area." The city recently bought four lots and successfully renovated them. "A young couple just bought one that was fully revitalized, so that's a great start," adds Muldrew. There are incentive packages in place for developers working on downtown housing as well.
Beyond housing, Statesboro is also giving newcomers and existing residents other appealing reasons to live, work, and play downtown. They're improving amenities like the Averitt Arts Center, which offers all kinds of classes, art shows, and performances. The city just opened a long-awaited dog park- a true collaborative effort- the Humane Society sold sponsorship bricks, the Blue Mile Foundation built the fence, Youth Leadership Bulloch and Statesboro High School built the pavilions, and the city planted trees and installed benches and swings. "The dog park is a huge hit already," says Allen. "It's great to see so many families and pups enjoying the space and being active downtown."
That million dollar win was the start of the Blue Mile Foundation, which has another big project in the works- one they're calling the Creek on the Blue Mile. (Click the link to see the video rendering of the project). This one started with Andy Burns, a local developer known for his creative thinking. Andy was inspired by his son's school that turned an unused creekside area into a promenade. The Blue Mile Foundation bought some land around the creek, while engineering came up with a plan and this video rendering of the potential outcome of the project.
Putting the "work" in live, work, play is BIG- also known as the Business Innovation Group. BIG was a downtown development project that is now in phase two. "BIG is a full, very vibrant part of Georgia Southern and crucial to our downtown," says Allen Muldrew. BIG is headed up by Dr. Dominique Halaby, pictured here at their location.
A little beyond downtown, you'll find another exciting development, also born from the creative vision of a Statesboro local- the West District. Josh Whitfield took the abandoned site of The West Building Supply and turned it into his sign company and showroom, but he didn't stop there. Josh and his company decided to expand and build out several pads on the site for other businesses to purchase. The plan includes community green space (think food trucks!), residential lofts, and showroom/retail spaces. Whitfield Sign Company continues business as usual during the construction, making any kind of beautifully designed signage from roadside to boat wraps.
For everyone involved in these projects, it is all hands on deck to add more retail and restaurants to attract downtown residents. While retail spaces and restaurants downtown have experienced turnover, new ones are in the works with plenty of opportunity for them to make a big impact on the area. One of these, the Bull and Barrel Steakhouse, is opening this summer, with a new Indian restaurant also coming soon. Eagle Creek Brewery is another big draw to downtown that the locals are proud to have.
On the industrial side of things, you'll find Benjy Thompson, the CEO Development Authority of Bulloch County and Rachel Barnwell, Manager of Economic Development Programs. Large business recruitment and expansions are handled by this team, but they work closely with those engaged in downtown development efforts. "Downtown and county-wide success really are hand-in-hand," explains Thompson. "We all have our roles and specialties, but we know that it takes all of a community's strengths together to make big things happen." Bulloch County has its own identity, but their proximity to Savannah and its ports are also an advantage. For example, the two million square foot Walmart distribution center in Statesboro is the largest Walmart distribution center in the world and remains the largest customer of the Port of Savannah.
Georgia Southern University is a big part of what sets Statesboro apart from other rural communities- not all can claim a fine arts center and Division 1 football. Rachel and Benjy are both Southern graduates who still live and work in the area. "GS is not a small, rural college. We are seeing more and more students moving here from metro Atlanta to go to school, bringing a whole new influx of talent," says Barnwell.
"The opportunity for growth here is thanks to a lot of people pulling in the right direction," says Benjy. "There's a regional sense of partnership when it comes to economic development- we use all our strengths: the college, the port, the interstate, rail, all of it." The joint development authority between Bulloch, Bryan, Effingham, and Chatham Counties believe that a win is good for everybody.
For Rachel, workforce development is a major focus. The work they do to support those efforts directly impact existing and new industry, both now and in the future. 2014 brought the launch of a program called Manufacturing Engineers, which is set to graduate their first cohort in the spring of 2019. Students start in 8th grade with Manufacturing Day, where the schools team with the three largest employers to give kids a look inside what careers in local manufacturing are like. Once they're introduced to the industries through the program, the older kids are invited back to experience hands-on training. "It's so cool to see the kids really get involved in something that could set them on a path for their future. There was one student who was having a really rough time in school, just not doing well at all- but when he got around those engines, he was in his element. That was his thing. And he didn't get to show that side of himself in a daily basis, so he got to shine that day. And maybe it set him on a better path," says Rachel. "It gives the kids an opportunity to realize that there's more than one path to be happy and successful," Benjy adds. "The goal is to grow our own workforce and make manufacturing a good option for the kids who want to pursue it."
In rural communities, you hear a lot about people leaving. But for so many reasons, there are a lot of people coming back- or coming home to Statesboro for the first time.