By Randy Southerland
Macon-Bibb County is a place where working together with the right partners has become a sure path to success. This Middle Georgia community has come a long way from the old days when a deadlocked city government seemed unable to make decisions and the downtown was a collection of empty stores.
Today Macon is the place to be with a vibrant business community and a trendy downtown. It’s also become something of a jobs engine for the region.
“In the last two years we’ve had numerous projects that are under construction right now or are complete and operating,” says Pat Topping, senior vice president of the Macon Economic Development Commission. “Those projects will generate almost $700 million in investment and over 1,500 new jobs.”
Just last year, companies such as First Quality Packaging Solutions, Courier Express, Chem-Aqua and Boeing have all decided that Macon-Bibb is the best place for them to do business. These firms announced plans to invest a total of $200 million, create 315 new jobs and retain more than 50 jobs in the community.
One really big win came in the form of a decision by Boeing Aircraft to convert one of its military plants to commercial production – a first for the company.
“With the military cutting back on spending, this is a great opportunity for us now that they’re going to invest about $80 million in the facility and hire 200 people to manufacture fuselage and assemblies for the 747 aircraft,” says Topping.
In its heyday Boeing employed more than 500 people in Bibb County. In recent years, military cutbacks have caused the workforce to dwindle to less than 200.
“This gives us an opportunity to regain some of those jobs but also positions us for the future in the commercial end,” Topping adds.
The Boeing decision was more than just a change for the plant. It represented the salvation of the company’s presence in Macon.
“We went from losing Boeing altogether to retaining them,” says Mike Dyer, president and CEO of the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Commission, “moving it from the defense sector to the commercial sector, which is their growth sector. And with the [787 Dreamliner] South Carolina plant being that close to us, it could give us some great opportunities.”
Aeronautics has been big business in Middle Georgia, particularly with the Air Force base at nearby Warner Robins and aviation programs operated by Middle Georgia State University at Macon’s airport.
New York-based First Quality Packaging Solutions, a leading plastics packaging company, will locate its manufacturing operations here, creating 115 jobs and investing $68 million over the next five years.
The company is an affiliate of First Quality Baby Products LLC, which operates a diaper manufacturing plant in Macon. It will convert an existing facility for its plastic solutions business.
Macon has also seen the long-promised Kumho tire plant finally nearing completion. The company is now hiring workers for its $500-million facility, which will begin production this year and expects to employ more than 450 people.
“The Kumho project started before the recession, and when it hit in 2007, they put this facility on hold for a while,” Topping says. “We stayed in touch with the Kumho folks, and they never gave up their commitment to opening the plant here.”
Macon’s location along major highways and rail lines made it ideal for Kumho, which will supply the region’s auto builders, such as Kia and Hyundai and other OEMs in the Southeast.
Macon has also become a popular place to live thanks to its large and diverse housing stock and abundance of neighborhoods. The downtown has become trendy once again as young and not-so-young professionals have been filling the growing number of loft apartments constructed in recent years. Retail and restaurants have returned to the area after a long absence.
The driving force behind revitalization has been a group of community partners that have worked closely to make things happen.
Macon-Bibb County Mayor Robert Reichert declares that he has been “holding the reins when the team of horses started to go. Timing is everything.”
Those horses include Mercer University, the Medical Center of Central Georgia and well-financed nonprofits like the Knight Foundation and the Peyton Anderson Foundation.
The Knight Foundation worked closely with Mercer to fund the College Hill Alliance, which led the revitalization of the diverse neighborhoods surrounding the university. The alliance sunset (folded) in December 2015 after completing the six-year term of its original charter. Its work will continue through the newly created volunteer College Hill Corridor Commission.
Soon after Reichert took office as the first mayor of consolidated Macon-Bibb, the Knight Foundation brought in a team from Akron, Ohio, to discuss that city’s highly successful revitalization program. The key there had been the cooperation of university, medical and community partners.
“They said, ‘If we had the housing stock that you guys have, we would be decades ahead of where we are now in trying to revitalize our downtown,’” Reichert recalls. “‘You’ve got it all. You got the bones of a vibrant downtown, the neighborhoods that surround it. You can make it happen.’”
Macon has fostered a host of walkable, sustainable community development. From 2002 to 2011, property values increased by 34 percent in College Hill as the Knight Foundation invested more than $18 million in the city. The foundation worked closely with the city, Mercer University and the Macon Housing Authority to redevelop the area, rehab houses and provide down payment assistance to new residents such as young professionals and Mercer faculty, while also enabling longtime residents to stay in this integrated neighborhood.
The downtown has also made a comeback as well.
“There is a national trend toward people wanting to live in a more urban sustainable environment,” says Macon’s Main Street Manager Steven Fulbright. “Our political leaders and private groups understand that [development] is going to require capital and investment in order to happen.”
Through its various agencies, the city has been issuing bonds and approving zoning changes to attract redevelopment of historic buildings. The goal is to bring people down to the central city.
“All of it is about the restoration of a certain sense of pride and civic awareness in the urban core,” says Alex Morrison, executive director of the Macon-Bibb County Urban Development Authority. “The job center of Bibb County is downtown Macon. It’s got a quarter of the jobs – 25,000 total employment. [Some of the] largest employers are right in the core of downtown. So you have a lot of economic vitality that’s here.”
To further revitalization in Macon’s neighborhoods, the city has also set up seven Shalom Zones. Under the guidance and training of a national organization, local residents lead initiatives that range from trash pickup to programs promoting good health to improve their communities.
“The Shalom Zones are resident led,” says the coordinator of the Macon-Bibb Shalom Zones, Frank Austin. “We trained the residents directly in the neighborhoods on [the Shalom Zone] concepts.”
Community members and leaders developed a plan of action for their neighborhood based on local needs, says Austin. “We believe that the community is the expert in this space,” he explains. “They live and play in the community, so all the ideas are extracted from the community and its members.”
A big sign of economic health came recently with the announcement that developers are about to get started on the first new residential construction downtown in decades. The $25-million plan to build a four-story, 137-unit apartment complex, offices and an incubator for budding musicians will bring new life to the desolate block around the former Capricorn Recording Studio.
A major component of the project, the studio building itself is being developed by Mercer University. Mercer at Capricorn will allow musicians from all genres to use a space that includes studios and rehearsal rooms.
Jessica Walden, whose father Alan co-founded the recording label with his brother Phil Walden, terms it “a great example of how private development can indeed preserve historic structures. So we’re getting the best of both worlds on this blighted block.”
The aging beige-colored building had long just faded into its surroundings. In the late ’90s, a fire destroyed nearby warehouses, and those lots in turn were paved over for parking. The building itself suffered from neglect and seemed destined for the wrecking ball. By 2010, it was considered one of the most endangered historic buildings in the state and appeared on The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation’s Places in Peril list that year.
Using funds donated by the Peyton Anderson Foundation, NewTown Macon, a public-private organization focused on revitalizing downtown, acquired the property in 2011.
“There was this huge parcel of vacant land, which was a tremendous economic opportunity, and the empty Capricorn studios, which was a tremendous cultural opportunity,” says Josh Rogers, president and CEO of NewTown Macon. “In 2011, the market conditions just weren’t right for us to see anything we want to see happen.”
The search was on to find a way to bring it back to life. That desire meshed with Mercer’s plan to locate a music incubator downtown. What better place than the spot where one of America’s most distinctive musical genres was created? In Capricorn’s studios, performers including The Allman Brothers Band, The Marshall Tucker Band and Wet Willie created the music that would become known as Southern Rock.
“Macon has this great music history that we saw as an economic development opportunity,” says Larry Brumley, Mercer University’s senior vice president for marketing communications and chief of staff. “We wanted to find ways to help musicians launch their brand and move into the national scene as some of these other famous artists did in years past. That would be great for Macon from an economic development standpoint.”
Once complete, Mercer at Capricorn will offer sound-isolated rehearsal rooms able to accommodate individuals, bands and even a chorus. The first floor will feature a performance space where musicians can try out their material before a live audience.
“We expect the types of musicians to cut across all genres,” says Rogers. “Our target audience are bands that are ready to take the next step but don’t want to go outside Macon to do it.”
Mercer University is also creating a more business-oriented incubator on its main campus. The 10,000-square-foot center will be adjacent to Mercer’s School of Engineering, School of Medicine and the Willet Science Center, near the heart of campus.
Entrepreneurs will be able to apply for a Mercer Innovation Fellowship. These competitive fellowships will give recipients one year of housing, office space, interns, access to all Mercer facilities and $20,000 cash. Winners of the first round of fellowships will be announced in April.
The Macon-Bibb County Industrial Authority is providing up to $75,000 annually for three years to help underwrite the salary for the center’s director. Also, the authority will furnish five co-working spaces in downtown Macon.
Another example of Mercer’s dedication to economic development can be found in its new partnership with Macon’s Navicent Health to create a Center for Disruption & Innovation.
The goal of the center is to bring together medicine and engineering to develop safer, more efficient ways of treating patients.
Macon is also becoming a tourist destination, with more travelers making side trips into the city while on their way to and from Florida on I-75. The growth of tourism has become a major industry supporting more than 3,300 jobs and generating an economic impact of more than $300 million, according to Monica Smith, president and CEO of the Macon-Bibb Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“Tourism jobs are those that are not exportable,” says Smith. “You have to have people in your local community doing the work and providing the services.”
Among the programs and events that are transforming Macon is the annual Middle Georgia Wellness and Fitness Festival. Founded by community leader Charise Stephens, the event is designed to encourage better health habits among local residents. Georgia has the 18th highest adult obesity rate in the nation at 30.3 percent, according to a University of Georgia study.
The festival is a weekend of workouts, fitness events, health screenings and celebrity fitness experts.
“We have an obesity problem here, and sometimes we have two out of three of our community members who don’t actually get any kind of exercise at all,” Stephens explains. “We try to hit everything, from people who work out on a regular basis to those who haven’t exercised in years.”
That could be said about a lot of what’s going on in Macon these days – something for everyone.
Artsy Enclave: Building on the success of the College Hill Corridor, local leaders have turned their attention to a long neglected area of the city on the east side of I-75. The latest neighborhood revitalization effort is aimed at using artists to drive economic development. Called “Mill Hill,” the proposed arts village along four blocks of the historic Fort Hawkins Neighborhood in East Macon is modeled after a similar community in Florida.
The neighborhood, near an entrance to the Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park, was once the mill village for the Bibb Manufacturing Co.’s Bibb Mill No. 1, and it is filled with historic craftsman-style homes.
The idea is to rehab the abandoned homes in the area and offer them as live-work spaces for artists. The rows of homes sit up on a hill overlooking a large auditorium, which will be renovated and returned to use as a community center. The building was originally constructed in 1920 by the mill for use by workers, according to Jonathan Harwell-Dye, director of creative placemaking for the Macon Arts Alliance.
“This building is the catalyst for the arts village,” says Harwell-Dye. “It’s the community space this neighborhood lacks today. Combining that with the park that will be developed as well, it’s going to be part of a bigger space that will be a benefit for the community.”
The creation of a vibrant walkable greenspace will also open up the community as a new path to visit the nearby national monument.
With 46 percent of the homes in the neighborhood vacant, the Macon-Bibb County Urban Development Authority has acquired a number of dilapidated houses and begun the process of renovation. Many of the homes were built in the early 1900s, and the goal is to modernize them without losing their historic character, according to Michael Phillips, preservation carpenter with Historic Macon Foundation, the organization doing the rehab work.
“We would like to maintain the mill village look, but since we’re trying to market to artists we are receptive to different colors than your typical white house,” says Phillips. “We would like for them to express their personality somewhat, but keep a bit of a mill feel about the neighborhood because that’s historically what it is.” – Randy Southerland