Macon to get major HUD help

jgaines@macon.comJanuary 16, 2014 

Macon is one of seven cities that will get intensive federal help with chronic economic problems under the Strong Cities, Strong Communities Initiative, local and national officials announced Thursday.

“We’re in for one heck of a ride, y’all, and it’s going to be great,” Mayor Robert Reichert told a crowd gathered in Macon-Bibb County Commission chambers. The audience of about 30 included many government employees but also heads of related agencies and private, nonprofit groups that work on social and economic issues.

Reichert choked up slightly as he extolled the program.

“We’re changing 40 years of decline,” he said. “We have hit the bottom. We are on the rebound.”

The effort, through the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development, will give “customized” help to each of the chosen cities, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan said during a conference call.

“There is both good news and bad news in that announcement,” Reichert said. The bad is that Macon has enough chronic problems to qualify. The good, he said, is that Macon was chosen because federal officials recognized that local government and private entities have a clear vision for making things better.

“We would not be where we are and would not have been selected had it not been for this local team that came together to make our case,” Reichert said.

The two federal officials who will work in-house with the Macon-Bibb government should arrive in February.

“We don’t even know who they are yet,” he said.

Chris Floore, public affairs director for the consolidated government, said those officials will work from the Office of Strategic Planning on the ground floor of City Hall.

“Think of these teams on the ground as having sort of a batphone,” Donovan said. Another eight to 10 people, in town intermittently, will have a direct line to relevant federal agencies, helping to navigate regulations and to find untapped financial resources, he said. AmeriCorps Vista volunteers also will be on hand to help put those plans into place, and a few outside experts on particular topics could be called in, Donovan said.

The federal commitment is for one year, but it’s likely to be extended for a second year if work is going well.

The program is a recognition that “one-size-fits-all” federal intervention doesn’t work, and instead sends experts to help the community implement its own plans, Donovan said.

In Cleveland, Ohio, that meant job training. In Memphis, Tenn., a small-business development initiative. In Chester, Penn., helping get the first new grocery store in more than a decade.

“We know from past failures that we cannot be successful if it’s the federal government coming in and telling a community what they should look like,” Donovan said.

Seeking local investment

Ideas and expertise used successfully elsewhere can be tapped by this year’s winners for similar needs.

The other cities chosen this year are St. Louis; Gary, Ind.; Flint, Mich.; Brownsville, Texas; Rockford, Ill.; and Rocky Mount, N.C.

The Strong Cities, Strong Communities Initiative started in 2011 in Chester, Penn.; Cleveland; Detroit; Fresno, Calif.; Memphis, Tenn.; New Orleans; and Youngstown, Ohio. In those places, federal help came for projects on education, transit, redevelopment, public health and safety, and starting new businesses, according to a news release from HUD spokesman George Gonzalez.

That involved “more effective use” of more than $368 million in existing federal funds and investments, he said.

A big part of the effort will be not just accessing federal funds, but getting local private investors to join the economic development plan, Donovan said.

While the 2007-2009 recession did further damage from which the country as a whole is still recovering, the cities singled out are ones that have struggled for decades due to major economic changes, he said.

Federal officials started with a list of measurements of economic distress, and found 91 cities that fit the criteria. They were all invited to apply for the program, but just 51 did.

Cutting those down to the seven winners was an “intensive process” of meeting with local officials and representatives of private business and nonprofit organizations, looking for clear and unified plans for local improvements, Donovan said.

Several ongoing or long-planned efforts impressed federal officials and may benefit from this assistance, Reichert said: his plan to make Second Street a continuous pedestrian-friendly corridor from east Macon through downtown, eventually linked to Middle Georgia State College and points between by a light-rail system; the hope of making Ocmulgee National Monument into a national park; plans for Terminal Station; dealing with former industrial sites along Seventh Street; and turning Middle Georgia Regional Airport in to a cargo hub.

“This is a process, not an event,” Reichert said. Some of the expected experts will work with local public and private partners to set priorities, he said.

On light rail in particular, Reichert envisioned not just one running through downtown but -- in 20 years -- a perpendicular line from The Shoppes at River Crossing through downtown Macon and all the way to Robins Air Force Base. Those lines could then extend to Forsyth, Fort Valley State University and Milledgeville, reasserting Macon as the “hub city” of Middle Georgia, he said.

“That’ll take 50 years to complete, but today’s the day we start,” Reichert said.

To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.

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