The forest through the trees

October 26, 2012 

Yeah, another piece on Forest Hill Road, but it’s not the usual protest. The road project is but a symbol typifying the poor leadership in Macon and Bibb County.

There was no planning behind the selection of the roads to be widened in the 1994 special purpose local option sales tax (Promoted as “Pennies for Potholes” but not one pothole filled.) Two men, one a road contractor, drove around the county selecting roads to widen which would help get the SPLOST passed on Election Day. The federal and state governments would help pay for all the roads, and they assumed people would want wide roads in front of their homes. So, no planning and no consulting with urban planners nor the public. Why?

Every single justification for widening the road has proven to be invalid. Worse, every statistic they used -- traffic volumes, trends, accidents, etc. -- has proven to be untrue. The Telegraph editors called their numbers the “stuff of Houdini.” Every one of the sundry new reasons for road widening has proven to be neither accurate nor meaningful. Fast, noisy traffic threatens to devalue homes and aggravate homeowners. Yet, so far, no thoughtful design changes or a cancellation of the project. Why?

At least five or six other engineers, some nationally recognized for their expertise, say the project is either unneeded or seriously overbuilt. They have offered alternatives most people could accept.

No, our mayor and county commission want the road built as planned, without credible -- indeed any -- explanation to the public. Why?

Not very often has the public been consulted on any decision. On Forest Hill Road, politicians talk to the engineers but not the voters, except for a brief mediation with the public, whom the road officials selected. The road widening cadre wouldn’t budge and mediation failed. Forest Hill Road “improvements” will stand as a monument to Bibb County’s poor leadership. Too many decades have passed without Macon moving forward to improve conditions benefiting businesses or citizens.

Twenty or 30 years ago, a consultant was authorized to make a recommendation on what Macon’s best assets are and where we should invest in its future. The study said tourism. Consider that for a moment. Sherman spared Macon and our pre-civil war architecture still exists all around us; check out Intown Macon. We have the Ocmulgee Indian mounds and other mounds rarely seen. The Hay House and the Cannonball House have fascinating histories. We have one of the three remaining wilderness areas in Georgia. Additional walkways through the swamps could attract more nature lovers; birds (sandhill cranes, white and blue herons, etc.) are a sight to behold. We have bald eagles. I’m on the lookout for Erick Erickson’s black panther. Rose Hill Cemetery and our musical heritage; who wouldn’t be interested?

Our industries would benefit from such an influx of visitors -- from hotels and restaurants to theatre. So many other parts of Macon would thrive. And with the additional revenues generated, we could improve the lives of all our residents.

Now consider: Williamsburg in Virginia attracts between one and two million visitors, to see some mostly rebuilt buildings which try to restore a model of the original colony. Tourists drive two to three hours out of their way to get there. If promoted and prepared, Macon would have so much more to offer tourists while providing an interstate to make it convenient to get here.

Has our political leadership moved us in this direction? They decided to bring in the music and sports halls of Fame. How many of us would have invested a dollar in their success? Today the music hall is closed. Yes, the ball has been dropped repeatedly.

We have stubborn leadership that cannot make the best decisions and do not have a tradition showing us they even know how. Their lack of insight or concern has brought us to a city with no population growth, and the crime rate for a city our size is the third highest in the country.

Where are the intelligent, thoughtful, imaginative, creative and business-minded officials? They have been missing for years. Macon has tremendous potential, but our leaders wander blindly in the trees looking for a forest. They don’t see it and are depending on us not seeing it either.

Tom Scholl is a resident of Macon. He writes every other week for The Telegraph.

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