“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”
― President Franklin D. Roosevelt
Statesboro, Georgia has been selected as one of the eight finalists for the America’s Best Community competition, a three-year contest that applicants seek to revitalize their small towns and rural communities through corporate partnerships and prize earnings. As a finalist, the City of Statesboro has joined with eight other cities to receive $100,000 each for implementation of their respective community revitalization plans. They advance to the Final Round where three winners will be named, with the first-place finisher receiving $3 million in prize money.
This revitalization project, also commonly referred to as the “Blue Mile”, is a multi-organizational effort that is led primarily by Statesboro’s South Main Street Revitalization Committee with the partnership of the Statesboro City County, Statesboro-Bulloch Chamber of Commerce, and others. It seeks to bring about a re-energized spirit to the downtown corridor. Styled with new landscape features along with bringing in new commercial opportunity, this project could “open the front door to residential neighborhoods, and host several businesses that are frequented by residents and college students alike.”
The City of Statesboro can be attributed to having the vision to foresee this redevelopment project, as they adopted the 2011 Statesboro Downtown Master Plan and 2014 Comprehensive Plan, which identified South Main Street as a “commercial redevelopment area.” This redevelopment is needed preeminently, as many of the properties that lay along the South Main corridor remain vacant and the business district suffers from decreased levels of economic activity.
A “lack of green space, public gathering places, unique destination points and amenities to draw residents and visitors to the area” has caused much concern for economic developers as well as city and county leadership. The physical appearance of the scenery and landscape of the downtown district needs serious attention and residential areas that are a part of the North and West Main corridor are dilapidated. It is also mentioned that crime, although reported data suggests that violent crime in the city is on the decline, is also very much a concern.
While the Blue Mile Revitalization effort has officially begun, other projects that have similar aims of re-energizing community districts have shown cause for major concern for Statesboro’s development aspirations, as the existing realities of socio-economic diversity are eerily similar. For example, the Melrose Commons, “which included the largest continuous stretch of municipally owned land in [South Bronx, NY],” was a 1990’s urban renewal plan aiming to bring in additional middle-income housing, relocating renting residents to bring in an increased number of home owners, increasing the median household income from being one of the lowest in the city, and bringing new commercial opportunities into the district. These efforts saw minimal opposition until the questions surrounding gentrification and displacement of long-time residents were brought into the conversation.
The same kind of effort is present here in the Blue Mile Revitalization Plan. Per U.S. Census data, 53.4% of Statesboro residents, approximately 24,755 people, live below the poverty line. This is higher than the national average of 15.5%. The median household income, on average 2.3 people per house, is $22,196, which is $24,146 less than the Georgia average and $13,446 less than the Bulloch County average. 7.4% of the housing units in the city are occupied by renters (Dataset: ACS 5-year Estimate, Source: U.S. Census Bureau). After adjusting much of the economic data to account for the Georgia Southern student population, the numbers reflect a much more motivating reality. However, the truth remains that there is much more work to do.
An investment of $3 million will undoubtedly lead to economic stabilization in Statesboro’s downtown corridor. The social and economic impact will be almost immediate, as Georgia Southern students and tourists would patronage downtown and increase economic activity in the district, and would overwhelmingly change the landscape of business in the region.
After all, that is the intended outcome of the revitalization effort. As stated by the Committee, “This is the heart and soul of our community. This is the town gown – where students and residents engage; where our past meets our future.” Crime may decrease. Current residents may relocate and new property owners may move in. Existing businesses may sell and new owners will buy in.
The part that will not be met well by many stakeholders, however, is expressed best by British sociologist Ruth Glass. “Once this gentrification starts in a district, it goes on rapidly until all or most of the original working-class occupiers are displaced and the social character of the district has changed.”
We can attempt to mitigate the negative consequences of the revitalization project, such as the disparities of resident placement, neighborhood diversity, and isolated groups of the community that would be more affected than others. But we must also lead and support efforts that would assist in alleviating some of the challenges to which our well-intentioned attempts to revitalize our downtown corridor would create, before any consequences were to ever affect the community.
The Blue Mile Revitalization Plan is very comprehensive, but if it addressed all the necessary points to truly being America’s Best Community, these challenges would not be present. Unfortunately, however, they are. Efforts must go beyond complex beautification projects. The ABC competition is just that, a competition. However the effects that such an investment will create here in Statesboro goes well beyond the ABC competition.
It is now dependent on our public policymakers to address these concerns, and should aim at equitable development for all residents and stakeholders, preservation of the historic culture of the city, as well as fostering a successful and diverse community. Shockingly, there are few examples of cities who have experienced success when projecting revitalization efforts while minimizing the effects of gentrification through redevelopment, but there is an opportunity for Statesboro to lead by example in truly being the country’s best community.
Mandatory inclusionary zoning would require new residential developments to include affordable housing, or in the least, include an anti-displacement clause that would protect existing residents from displacement. With such implementation, stakeholders should consider what barriers would restrict new development and add unnecessary costs, and strategize how to address them.
Additional consideration would also lead to the establishment of regulatory rent stabilization. Such policy would not only help residents by preventing predatory price gouging and leading to gentrified areas, but also would allow for home owners who wish to rent out their property to be able to fill vacant housing quickly rather than leave residential lots unoccupied after development.
The ABC competition has established life-long coalitions of shared belief that revitalizing the Blue Mile will not only benefit long-time residents but will also invite in new residents that will want to remain a part of the Statesboro community. Addressing the presented concerns is yet another opportunity to build upon that very coalition and to ensure that Statesboro truly becomes America’s Best Community.