Macon-Bibb reps to Atlanta: Public investment, please

mlee@macon.comFebruary 25, 2014 

ATLANTA -- The Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce’s annual roadshow to Atlanta, to lobby and learn from state government, carried one major message: We need public investment in transportation if we’re going to profit from economic growth.

“The whole crux of this is, ... No. 1, to thank them (state agencies and lawmakers) for the help they’ve given us in the past, and No. 2, for them to listen to some of the things we want them to pay attention to going forward,” said Pat Topping, senior vice president of the Macon Economic Development Commission.

Transportation is a “big component of what we need to work on,” said Topping, a few hours into a long day of leading more than 100 Macon-Bibb notables on the annual Macon Day trip to the state Capitol. Hundreds more were expected for the Taste of Macon dinner Tuesday night.

“Unfortunately, we did not pass the T-SPLOST,” Topping said, referring to a failed 2012 referendum on an extra penny of sales tax on the dollar for big road, rail and bridge builds across several midstate counties.

His sentiment was echoed several times during the day.

“We did miss the opportunity” by rejecting T-SPLOST, said state Rep. Nikki Randall, D-Macon, chair of the Macon-Bibb legislative delegation. “We’ve got to think more regionally,” .

“We committed again last night as a delegation to reach out to delegations within Middle Georgia, dialoguing more often,” said Randall.

Mike Dyer, president of the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce, is looking toward the planned deepening of the port of Savannah. If it happens, the port predicts more cargo volume, but there’s a hitch.

“We are centrally located to take advantage of the expansion of that port,” said Dyer. Macon-Bibb has great road, rail and air assets, he added, also saying that his organization is working with Houston County counterparts to work on some air logistics hub proposals.

But “we can’t take advantage of everything I’ve talked about without some money to fix our infrastructure, our transportation infrastructure. Losing T-SPLOST set us back significantly,” said Dyer.

Had the penny tax passed, it would have sped up builds such as an improved Interstate 16 and Interstate 75 intersection. There’s no clear idea in the Legislature this year about how else to raise such big money.

Macon Day included speakers from the state Ports Authority, the Department of Education and the Department of Economic Development.

Topping also said he wants to make sure Macon-Bibb’s eight lawmakers know about the One Macon campaign. It’s a countywide community and economic development plan meant to make the area more attractive to locals and to attract newcomers. It comes after a year of study and data gathering.

Some of the stories are what observers might have expected, he said. For example, hospitals and postsecondary education are excellent, but health outcomes are still poor for many people, and too many college graduates leave Macon-Bibb.

Also, Topping said, “race and trust in leadership are big issues we need to work on.”

Commissioner Al Tillman, along on Macon Day, said he’s heard that trust-in-leadership issue. There’s a disconnect between the grass roots and leaders -- even within communities, he said.

He emphasized bringing everyone in the community out of their silos to the tables where policies are discussed and decisions are made.

That kind of sharing “is where we fail,” said Tillman, and people feel like they’re left out of the good things that Macon is doing.

For example, he said too often official meetings are on weekday mornings, when normal people are busy working.

“It’s like it’s done just for the who’s who,” he said.

A better way, he suggested, is as simple as what happened Monday night, when Mayor Robert Reichert held a public meeting in Tillman’s District 9. Usually, a church hall might be opened up for such a meeting. But, Tillman said, people from one church tend not to visit another. Instead, they had the meeting at what Tillman called “neutral ground” at the Macon Mall. Turnout was high, about 50 people, he said.

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