Oedel: Troubled Macon boosterism

July 14, 2013 

I read with skepticism Harold Goodridge’s July 6 article in The Telegraph fantastically titled, “No end in sight for downtown Macon’s fast-pace commercial, residential growth.” The article seemed to report on some other downtown Macon than the one we know.

Goodridge’s piece was followed the next day by Phillip Ramati’s credulous report, “College Hill plan designers laud progress,” about some of Macon’s paid city boosters saying what a great job some other paid city boosters are doing.

So who’s passing out the Kool-Aid at the Telegraph?

Don’t get me wrong. I wish every good thing for commercial and residential growth in Macon’s downtown, for NewTown Macon and the College Hill Corridor initiative. In particular, it’s remarkable what a determined role Mercer president Bill Underwood and Knight Foundation leader Beverly Blake have played in jump-starting the corridor. And lots of terrific things can also be said about NewTown Macon, the Peyton Anderson Foundation and other Macon boosters.

But less-than-candid boosterism can hurt downtown Macon’s realistic prospects, in part because phony claims make outsiders who take the trouble to investigate the facts suspicious after they figure out that the boosters’ bravado doesn’t add up.

If we’re honest about downtown Macon’s problems and prospects as an urban center, we have to concede up front that they’re beyond difficult. Goodridge’s report that commercial and residential growth downtown is off the charts is pretty much science fiction, extrapolating wildly and dangerously from micro data.

Blind determination without a plausible goal leads to flame-out, and Macon’s boosters have a history of flaming out. For instance, Emmett Barnes bet a fortune on downtown Macon’s truly remarkable buildings, and lost that fortune. Various owners have repeatedly bet on Macon’s signature high-rise hotel, the Crowne Plaza/Ramada, and lost their bets. Kirby Godsey is still trying to get someone to bet on the Renaissance Riverside Drive office/condo/retail project next door, but lenders remain appropriately skeptical.

The moribund Georgia Sports Hall of Fame, the dead Georgia Music Hall of Fame, the Tubman’s never-opened hulk, the Terminal Station, and plenty more sad cases have sucked large hunks of energy and money from well-meaning folks, often via government and foundations, without appreciable effect. And there are plenty of small-scale private businesspeople who have tried valiantly at making a downtown presence work, but have eventually surrendered to more sobering realities. Case in point: Joshua Cup.

Perhaps the best American student of cities, and a real cities enthusiast, is Ed Glaeser, wunderkind economics professor at Harvard and author of “The Triumph of the City.”

Among other things, Glaeser observes that a common mistake is to fixate on real estate and hard infrastructure as false proxies for “city.” That’s a big problem in Macon, which has movie-set-quality architectural bones, plus superb interstate access, but scant vibrancy.

There are few engaged folks to flesh out Macon’s architectural bones, only occasional activities of substance to draw outsiders in, and meager prospects for getting a critical mass to choose to live downtown.

Free concerts and pink ice cream, a touch of nightlife, a trace of music history, some cute statues, a fun college game, a few fancy signs, plans and slogans -- they’re all very nice. But they don’t make up a vital city.

The demographics of Macon don’t even warrant situating a garden-variety supermarket downtown despite loads of empty space and parking. Downtown Macon has degenerated into little more than several under-utilized interstate exits, a solid but isolated university on the margin, some stubborn churches, the courts, a jail, a massive medical circus, and a whole bunch of poverty.

Glaeser identifies the genius of cities as being to magnify the latent strengths in the local people. By the same token, though, cities like Macon can also magnify latent local weaknesses like disengagement, ignorance, dependence, sickness, pain and crime.

It’s good that there remains some engagement by the affluent and creative in downtown Macon. But until Macon’s poor become intimately engaged by getting work and mapping out a more vital future for themselves, the urban pioneers’ rickety wagon won’t roll far.

David Oedel teaches at Mercer Law School.

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