Mayor Robert Reichert spoke of broad ideas and future development concepts as he addressed the state of Macon at a Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce event Thursday morning.
In trying to pick the perfect word to describe the city’s current condition, Reichert came up with “malleable.”
“We can forge and shape our future together,” said Reichert, who shared the stage at the Douglass Theatre with newly elected Bibb County Commission Chairman Sam Hart.
The mayor did not discuss any of the budget problems currently confronting the city. But later Thursday, while meeting with The Telegraph’s editorial board, he acknowledged there are tough times ahead as city officials try to shore up what they expect will be a $2 million budget deficit at the end of this fiscal year.
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Reichert’s staff is combing through the budget trying to find savings, looking first for places where services or capital spending can be cut. Among the possible casualties, the mayor said, may be $50,000 that he and the council expected to set aside for the Tubman African American Museum and the Georgia Children’s Museum.
The money was intended to serve as a compromise in place of legislation that asked to take hotel/motel tax funding away from the Cherry Blossom Festival to give to the museums instead.
Furloughs also have been mentioned as a possible source of savings for the city. Reichert has said he hopes furloughs or layoffs would be a last resort.
While Reichert did not touch on city finances during his remarks to Chamber of Commerce members, he used the occasion to talk about future large-scale projects from which the community could benefit.
For the first time, he spoke publicly to a large audience about the potential for creating a regional transportation and industrial hub in south Bibb County. He said it can be spurred by development of a new Sardis Church Road/Interstate 75 interchange that also extends the road east to the Middle Georgia Regional Airport, across the Ocmulgee River and on to Interstate 16.
In doing so, the new transportation route would more directly connect the airport, Savannah’s international port and the planned G-RAMP development at Robins Air Force Base, Reichert said. That opens up new opportunities for air freight and industrial expansion and also provides a new river crossing and route around the city for truck traffic, he said.
The mayor said the community needs to get behind the road project and begin advocating for its development. Chip Cherry, president of the chamber, said he agrees. The added infrastructure and connectivity is crucial to accommodating new growth, Cherry said.
“Our job is to help sell that,” he said.
Ron Natale, president of Central Georgia Technical College, said the Sardis Church Road project could bring challenges for the college, such as providing a work force in south Bibb and getting students to work down there, he said. It also could bring an opportunity for the college to grow in that area, he said.
“That’s our challenge: making sure our planning falls in line with the mayor and commission,” he said.
Another transportation project on Reichert’s mind is the south downtown connector. Although the state Department of Transportation is mired in budget problems and the project is not high on its list, Reichert said it could be completed at considerably less cost if local money were used instead.
The mayor said if the items were paid for out of a special purpose local option sales tax, the connector could be completed in 36 months for $10 million or less. Were Macon to continue to seek DOT funding for the project, various state and federal requirements would double the price and quadruple the amount of time it would take, he said.
Staff writer Jennifer Burk contributed to this story. To contact writer Matt Barnwell, call 744-4251.