NewTown wants block-by-block renewal plan

hduncan@macon.comMarch 12, 2012 

  • Anchors for downtown redevelopment

    Here are the key anchor buildings for downtown redevelopment, as identified in NewTown Macon’s draft five-year plan:
    • Capricorn building on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard
    • Dannenberg Building at Poplar and Third streets
    • Several buildings on Cherry Street referred to as the Bashinski properties
    • 522 Cherry St. (next to Market City Café)
    • The former Macon Rescue Mission building on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard

NewTown Macon’s most high-profile projects for the next few years include helping renovate one of the largest empty buildings downtown, adding paved trails and improvements at Amerson Water Works Park, renovating a historic recording studio and building an outdoor amphitheater next to it.

The nonprofit is also in the process of putting together a new five-year strategic plan that focuses on increasing residents, businesses and activity “in a block-by-block approach to transform downtown.”

This block-by-block approach is new.

NewTown asked the Middle Georgia Regional Commission to identify strengths and weaknesses downtown and the anchor buildings that could turn areas around, said Kristi Harpst, a planner for the commission.

“NewTown has accomplished a lot, but it’s spread out,” Harpst said. The commission is recommending that NewTown concentrate on a mass of properties close together in high-vacancy areas. Success would be measured by reducing these vacant properties by half within five years, the draft plan indicates.

The commission identified three areas. But when half of NewTown’s board met Thursday, they suggested three different target zones of a block each in the same general area, Ford said.

The areas basically cover the lower end of Cherry and Poplar streets between Second Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, and another block or more along Third Street starting at Poplar and extending toward The Medical Center of Central Georgia.

The remaining NewTown board members who couldn’t make Thursday’s meeting are scheduled to discuss the draft plan and target zones Tuesday and make further suggestions.

The draft plan is likely to change in other ways. For example, it now contains only a passing reference to Water Works Park, which is supposed to receive about a fifth of the money NewTown hopes to raise in the next five years, Ford said.

And some board members said Thursday that they want to see more emphasis on Mayor Robert Reichert’s Second Street Corridor redevelopment initiative.

Key projects

NewTown failed to meet some of its downtown redevelopment goals when the 2008 credit crunch froze plans for five to seven projects totaling about 250 residential units that were “shovel ready,” Ford said.

“But we now have a model, born out of the financial crisis, to make the pieces work,” said Laura Schofield, NewTown’s executive vice president.

It’s a combination of low-interest loans, historic tax credits, bond equity, investor financing and conventional financing cobbled together by a group of public and nonprofit agencies.

The Development Authority of Bibb County is in the process of issuing up to $5 million in revenue bonds, which NewTown will manage.

NewTown has indicated it would contribute about $1.2 million of the bond money toward renovating the 100,000-square-foot Dannenberg Building at the corner of Poplar and Third streets, which will include almost 70 lofts plus retail space.

Ford said the NewTown board has not approved the transaction, but “that is our No. 1 project for downtown.”

NewTown has been trying to find ways to move the Dannenberg project forward for years, supporting it by pursuing two major grants to fund a $2.7 million parking deck and by improving the drainage and appearance of nearby alleys.

The new funding mechanism saved the $7.3 million project, said Tony Long, one of the developers involved.

“We got financing we had just absolutely run up a brick wall with,” he said. “We thought we were just going to have to give up.”

He said as soon as the financing for the funding gap is finalized, his group can begin work on the building within a few weeks.

NewTown also plans to start a $6 million upgrade later this year for Water Works Park, including paved trails and new parking.

And it intends to turn the old Capricorn Records building into a working studio with display space for memorabilia from the shuttered Georgia Music Hall of Fame.

The Capricorn label made Macon a mecca for Southern rock by recording groups such as The Allman Brothers Band and the Marshall Tucker Band.

NewTown is about to start a national fundraising campaign with a goal of $2 million to $2.4 million for both the Capricorn renovation and construction of an adjacent amphitheater. The outdoor venue of 600 to 1,000 seats would be located on vacant land NewTown just purchased between the Capricorn and the old Macon Rescue Mission buildings.

NewTown also volunteered to operate the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame for at least three years. Since the museum has a staff, NewTown’s role will mostly be to run a statewide fundraising campaign, Ford said.

Draft five-year plan

The regional commission identified measurable goals for NewTown in each of its target areas: increasing residents, growing jobs and business, and creating a sense of place.

It also recommended potential new projects to NewTown, such as becoming an advocate for an Ocmulgee Blueway initiative to attract boaters.

The draft plan calls for establishing a transitional property fund to stabilize property that NewTown buys, and ensure its sale within two years. Five years ago, NewTown owned no property, NewTown CEO Mike Ford said. It now owns about a dozen parcels, including derelict buildings and vacant lots.

NewTown also wants to study the feasibility of becoming the primary rental agent for all downtown residential housing, according to the draft.

The plan would set a new goal of 85 to 90 percent occupancy in downtown rental units. Although that’s believed to be the current occupancy rate, more research is needed to establish a baseline, Harpst said.

NewTown should raise $800,000 to $1 million to establish and support a business incentive fund, the draft plan states.

Although NewTown’s old five-year plan set specific goals for adding a certain number of new businesses and residents, Ford said the new plan probably won’t.

Last year’s revision of the expiring five-year-plan included the goal of adding 60 new businesses downtown, restoring 20 historic facades, finishing a new downtown parking deck, improving downtown alleyways and constructing Cherry Street Plaza in front of the museums. It met all those goals.

Other goals weren’t met. Only 26 new apartments were added downtown, nowhere near enough to support the 1,000 new residents envisioned.

Other goals that weren’t met were mostly milestones in long-term projects, such as completing a third of a $36-million, mixed-use riverfront development that hasn’t begun; constructing paved trails and a welcome center at Water Works Park by 2010, some of which is expected to begin later this year; and finishing east Macon and Riverside Cemetery portions of the Ocmulgee Heritage Trail.

The plan also set a goal of securing $50 million in downtown improvements during the past five years, while only $17.9 million were completed in the central business district, according to NewTown’s measurements.

Once the NewTown board agrees on the concepts in its new five-year-plan, public meetings will be held to invite feedback before finalizing it, Schofield said.

Mission creep

Although NewTown’s last strategic plan focused on downtown residential units and businesses, much of what NewTown accomplished in the past five years was cultural: establishing or maintaining museums, parks, festivals and events that would bring visitors and residents downtown.

Few of those projects were listed in the plan, and some of them are well outside downtown. “Some things we just pick up because we’re capable,” Ford said. “We’ll pick up things to help people, but that doesn’t really take away from our mission.”

An example is the Ocmulgee Land Trust, which holds conservation easements -- many in other counties -- for land owners who agree not to develop their land along the river. NewTown would be responsible for being sure those agreements aren’t violated.

Pat Madison, executive director of the College Hill Alliance, said revitalization groups often experience “mission creep” unless it focuses on its strategic plan.

“You’re in an organization that likes to make stuff happen and fix things,” he said. “The tendency is to want to say yes, I’ll be a partner. ... But you’ve got to fulfill your plan.”

NewTown manages many projects using a handful of employees with the help of an active volunteer network. But there are pitfalls to having people in charge who lack special expertise.

For example, in 2009 a Creek Indian archaeological site in Water Works Park was damaged by a NewTown employee who was harrowing a field. Local history enthusiasts blamed the mistake partly on lack of professional park management staff.

Stephen Hammack, a professional archaeologist and leader of the Ocmulgee Archaeological Society, catalogued and preserved surface artifacts exposed by the harrowing. Although initially critical, Hammack praised NewTown’s handling of the situation once the error was recognized, and he said the damage turned out to be less than initially feared.

NewTown became involved with Water Works because the park is supposed to eventually link with downtown through the Ocmulgee Heritage Trail, Ford said. When upcoming work on Interstates 16 and 75 temporarily messes up portions of the trail, the park will provide residents with an alternative, he said.

But running a 180-acre park has proved challenging. The park’s opening hours have been inconsistent, and rules forbidding all-terrain vehicles have been tough to enforce.

Ford and Chris Sheridan, who leads a NewTown committee that oversees the park, have long said they want to hire at least one full-time ranger.

“NewTown has an endowment to use toward that, but it’s just not big enough,” Sheridan said. “We’d rather not be building (new trails in the park) before we have an answer to the maintaining problem. ... NewTown is not the entity to be doing intensive park management.”

Sheridan said meetings have been held with city, county and Georgia Department of Natural Resources officials about the possibility of their managing the park.

Many board members said they want NewTown to focus most of its energy on getting new lofts and businesses downtown, Ford said.

“They could care less about some of these other activities except to the extent that they support residents and businesses,” Ford said, but he argues that parks and activities do that.

Dyer said, “I wouldn’t want them to do a lot that gets them off the focus of getting our empty buildings with somebody in them. I don’t think it was ever their intent to be long-term managers of Terminal Station. ... In the longer term, they probably don’t want to be in a management role for the Sports Hall.”

“But that’s easy to say when there’s no one else to take it.”

To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.

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