ARTICLE BY BRADLEY MULLIS
I’m running a little late to my meeting with Chris Curtis on Tuesday.
It’s because I’m looking for the Georgia Southern Research Labs, somewhere near the Armstrong Campus on Savannah’s Southside. I eventually find it after a quick search; it’s sitting in a nondescript building on Mohawk Drive.
The building’s exterior is a clash of brick and dull, sun-baked beige stucco. The words “Coastal Regional Crime Laboratory” have been pressure-washed away, but a faint outline remains. Next to it, a small metal sign ID’s the property as “Georgia Southern Research Labs.”
The building is being renovated. The GBI was leasing the land, and when the contract came up for renewal, they left for a shiny new lab in Pooler.
I walk in through the front door and watch the world change. The garish hue of the exterior gives way to soft lights coming through the glass, bringing a cool warmth to the blue carpets. I make my way to the back of the office, where Curtis greets me warmly with a cup of coffee as we settle in.
Chris Curtis is an interesting person, to be sure. He speaks with a quiet voice that peaks when he gets excited about the topic he’s discussing. He’s the Vice Provost of Georgia Southern’s Research and Scholarships initiative, and he’s heavily involved in SLIC. (Savannah Logistics Innovation Center).
If you aren’t aware of the SLIC, you should know the back story to understand the importance of Curtis’ role. In 2018 a group of local business and community leaders focussed on putting Savannah on the map as an innovation leader in the supply chain and logistics industry. The group mobilized initiatives to create legislature on what would be called the Savannah Logistics Technology Corridor (SLTC),
SLTC task force members included representatives from SPEROS, Georgia Tech Savannah, the Savannah Economic Development Authority, The Creative Coast, the Technology Association of Georgia, Hunter Maclean, the Association for Supply Chain Management, BB&T, and Hargray. The group met for months and in May of 2018, the pivotal SR-821 was signed by Governor Nathan Deal. The SR-821 resolution established Savannah as one of two Technology Corridors in the state of Georgia.
In 2021, HR 248 was passed by the General Assembly and signed by Governor Kemp. This resolution laid out the geographic region of the Savannah Logistics Technology Corridor to include Bryan, Bulloch, Chatham, Effingham, Liberty and Screven counties.
The SLTC was then rebranded to the SLIC and is now led by Georgia Southern University and the Savannah Economic Development Authority in a public-private partnership. Additional partners in the SLIC include the Georgia Ports Authority, the Georgia Department of Transportation, Savannah State University, Georgia Power, Savannah Technical College, and Foram.
Now back to Curtis, who plays a crucial role in the SLIC. The really interesting thing about him is his background. His specialty isn’t in business, or transportation and shipping. No one would ever associate him as having anything to do with logistics, or even innovation, for that matter. After all, he’s a history professor.
“I am!” Curtis said, laughing. “It’s an unusual beginning for people in my world.”
Curtis teaches Jacksonian America and Civil War and Reconstruction classes at Georgia Southern. He’s published papers on topics like Suffrage Reform. A background like this doesn’t necessarily scream “logistics” or even innovation. But he disagrees.
“One of the advantages of being a historian is context, cultures, and languages are very important in trying to understand what went on historically,” he says. “And you can apply that in other sectors. With the startup world, once you learn the lingo, it starts to work.”
And Curtis had to learn the lingo quickly.
“We saw the potential for work here. I don’t think any of us anticipated how quickly it was going to accelerate,” Curtis admits. “But the other thing to remember, that I think is cool, is that we started doing all of this before Hyundai got here. Now everyone is talking about how robust Savannah is, and it’s kind of neat to see that.”
But how does the Statesboro-based university make an impact on the Savannah Logistics Innovation Corridor? What exactly makes this such a big deal?
“It’s important to help drive not just economic growth, but the type of economic growth,” Curtis explains. “We found in an analysis that Savannah is rich in logistics already in 2019. There was a lot of activity, not just in the port, but also in the trucking and transport industry.”
That being said…
“There was very little tech, very little innovation,” says Curtis.
Enter Georiga Southern.
“From my perspective, it’s through the research and innovation aspects that we impact our city,” he says. “So, the university isn’t just an educator of students—rather, it’s a driver of knowledge, and discovery, and entrepreneurship, and new ideas.”
He cites two specific cases of how Georgia Southern is involved.
“Plug N’ Play is bringing in batches of startups, these mature companies that are just getting ready to take flight,” he says. “They just need a little bit of help. Well, how do we help bring them together with the intellectual capital of our university and help drive them forward a little bit further?”
He continues, saying, “The other thing this brings us is corporate relationships. You look at companies like Norfolk Southern, Maersk, and others, and they’ve not ignored us. But being able to show them what capacity we have here and what we’re able to do is a big part of the story.”
This is all in the name of progress for the Hostess City.
“There are a lot of factors that make people decide that somewhere is a good place to live,” he explains. “That’s the goal for Georgia Southern’s public impact research for this region. At the end of the day, we want to make this a great place to live.
With this as a closer, I thank Curtis for his time and pack up. I walk back down the hallway, leaving the soft lights behind to be again greeted by the reddish clay exterior of the building. Workers are buzzing around the grounds, removing items from another part of the building and getting ready to install new fixtures inside. It reminds me of the change happening in Savannah, and what the city is getting ready to turn into. It’s still working through formative stages (built on high accomplishments, I might add), but it reminds me of something Curtis said before I left.
“You’ve got to grab on to the successes. You’re spinning plates as you’re trying to put things into place. I like it here,” he says, smiling. “I want to make it even better.”
To learn more about the Savannah Logistics Innovation Center, visit https://www.savannahlogisticsinnovationcenter.com/. Read more about Chris Curtis at https://cah.georgiasouthern.edu/history/faculty/dr-christopher-curtis/.