While some changes downtown have been subtle and others more obvious, a plan to shape Macon’s urban core is making progress.
The Macon Action Plan was initiated two years ago by the Macon-Bibb County Urban Development Authority with input from other groups focused on downtown, local government and the community. It is intended to be a road map to guide changes downtown to improve the economy and capitalize on local culture. The four areas of the plan are economic development, experience, living and connectivity.
A lot of the attention so far has been focused on the connectivity part of the plan, said Alex Morrison, executive director of the Urban Development Authority. Bike racks and rental bikes are now available and bike lanes have been installed. Improvements have been made to improve the Ocmulgee Heritage Trail. Work on a parking management plan is underway.
“I think it’s just been incredible the response we’ve gotten,” Morrison said. “People really do feel connected to this plan and no one group owns it; no one person owns it. It belongs to everybody, and I think that’s truly typified by the fact that … we’ve seen people really engaged in projects.”
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Macon-Bibb County Commissioner Larry Schlesinger said the plan was “obviously designed to move downtown forward and we are reaping the benefits of a lot of what’s going on down there.”
He represents District 2 which covers about half of downtown.
Schlesinger said that downtown loft developments have been the most significant thing to happen because they bring more people to the area.
“Downtown is becoming very much a residential neighborhood,” he said. “And services for the residents of the neighborhood are necessary. … I think the Action Plan provided leadership and direction for downtown moving forward.”
While some residents outside the urban core might question why the focus is on downtown, Schlesinger and Morrison said improvements downtown will affect everyone.
“Anybody who knows anything about economic redevelopment will tell you that redevelopment starts downtown and it radiates out,” Schlesinger said. “So I think we just need to follow the conventional wisdom, and I think we’re already starting to see it radiating out because now it’s jumped over the river … but it just takes time.”
Anybody who knows anything about economic redevelopment will tell you that redevelopment starts downtown and it radiates out.
Macon-Bibb County Commissioner Larry Schlesinger
Where the money and projects come from
Funding for many of the projects that have been implemented or are now underway has been provided by the Peyton Anderson Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Each organization provided $1.5 million in support. These foundations agreed that the Community Foundation of Central Georgia would design and implement the Downtown Challenge Fund for three years in order to implement the Macon Action Plan through a series of grants to businesses, nonprofits, individuals and governmental entities.
Twice a year the Community Foundation invites people with project ideas to seek grants through an application process.
”Implementing the Macon Action Plan is so critical,” said Kathryn Dennis, president of the Community Foundation. “We’re halfway through. We’ve had three rounds. ...We’ve made 66 grants totaling almost $1.4 million. And 43 of the grants and $821,000 of that $1.4 (million) are in the experience category. That’s where the Downtown Challenge can really thrive is giving funding for people’s ideas to activate the spaces downtown.”
Some of the projects receiving grants include hosting “preservation pop-up speakeasies” held in unexpected places to draw attention to underutilized spaces and advocate for preservation of historic buildings, Christmas on First Street to be held on First Street and Rosa Parks Square, dog waste disposal stations installed downtown, painted pianos placed around town, installation of movable furniture to activate public spaces and an entrance gate to the Ocmulgee Heritage Trail at Clinton Street.
The deadline for the next round of grants is noon Sept. 15, and applications will be accepted at www.downtownchallengemacon.org.
“This is our opportunity to make sure everything in the plan gets done,” Dennis said. “The little successes are building to big successes. ... I’m thrilled that people are enjoying it, and it’s not just Bibb County people. People are coming from around our contiguous counties and outside of that. ... Private investors now are coming in and investing. ... So, I already think the Macon Action Plan is a success, but I think we’ve got more to do to finish the plan.”
Some of the goals of the Action Plan involve infrastructure improvements, and those would be funded by the city-county government or other entities.
Since the Macon Action Plan is a blueprint for progress, it doesn’t list specific deadlines for completion, Morrison said.
“The way the plan is set up, each task and each project has its own time line,” he said. “So we work through all of them at their normal pace. The time horizon for some of the plans go out as far as 20 years, but most of the items are in the three- to five- to 10-year time line.”
Several of the projects involve connectivity, such as the Macon Connects pop-up bike lane experiment held in September 2016. From that temporary event, permanent bike lanes are being put downtown.
“We’ve proved that if you build the infrastructure, the riders will come,” Morrison said. “So, we’re now actively looking for ways to build a permanent bicycle network that uses the Ocmulgee Heritage Trail as a guide.”
Also, things are in the works to get funding to redesign Third Street Park to better accommodate bicycle traffic and connect it to streets such as Walnut, Mulberry and Poplar, he said. “And actually extending it out into the neighborhoods so you have this bike grid that connects people to jobs and commercial opportunities in the downtown area.”
Also, the Macon-Bibb County Convention & Visitors Bureau created Macon Soul Cycles, a bike-share services for people to rent bicycles, and waiving the fee if the bikes are returned within two hours.
Another project under the connectivity heading is the management of downtown parking, and it’s something that’s been examined and discussed for years. Many of the businesses have said their customers can’t park on the street because many downtown employees use those spaces instead of using a parking garage.
The Macon-Bibb County Commission in November 2016 designated the Urban Development Authority to come up with a plan. Earlier this week, Morrison said during a scheduled authority meeting that requests for proposals had been sent out for a parking management plan. The deadline is July 31 for bids.
“So far, four firms are interested,” he said.
Even though previous efforts at implementing a parking plan that included meters were met with resistance, Morrison said things have changed since more people live downtown.
“I don’t think the pressure has been as high as it is now,” he said. “It’s clear we need to do something.”
Authority member Gene Dunwody Jr. said downtown parking “is the worst I’ve ever seen. ... It’s had a tremendous effect on people trying to come downtown to eat or for entertainment. ... When people can’t get a spot (on the street) they will leave.”
Here’s a look at some of the other projects, some of which were at least partially funded by the grant program, and where things stand:
▪ Redesign of Third Street: The design is underway and it has already been engineered, Morrison said. Third Street is a way for the Ocmulgee Heritage Trail to be brought into downtown by connecting to the Riverside portion of the trail.
▪ Interstate 75/16 interchange: The plan includes working with the Department of Transportation to connect five neighborhoods with downtown. “It’s doable and we’re working with county engineering and planning and zoning to make sure to make sure those things are considered and inserted into the plan,” he said.
▪ Increase in greenspace: Improvements are being made in a number of parks and greenspace areas, such as those on Poplar Street, Cotton Avenue and Cherry Street Plaza. “We are not trying to create new parks out of the ether,” Morrison said. “We want to use what we have to make it function as a better greenspace. But there is Clinton Street, where we are talking about building a new park. ... You are not trying to do a dramatic overhaul. ... All these minor projects are adding up to a dramatic increase in the way people view the city.”
▪ Redesign intersection in front of Hay House: It’s still on the drawing board. Macon-Bibb County’s engineering department received a grant last fall to do a redesign “and we’ve looked at some different options for that including a roundabout,” Morrison said. The Hay House is involved in the design as well.
▪ Beautification projects: The Urban Development Authority is in the final stages of coming up with a signature streetscape improvement to Cherry Street, he said. “We are trying to get the park redesigns done and get a general streetscape plan done.”
▪ Business improvement district: Recently approved by the Macon-Bibb County Commission, a business improvement district is something found in the introduction of the Macon Action Plan, and was “to be considered right away,” Morrison said. “Mainly because it’s an overriding thing, an organizational thing. ... Everybody is working together now. ... Everybody is singing from the same song book. (The business improvement district) gives more synergy to our projects — that they are all building toward something bigger.”
▪ More trash collection and recycling efforts: The Urban Development Authority was able to work with the city-county commission, and it wrote a new solid waste ordinance for downtown. “We’ve now made trash collection a part of business licenses,” Morrison said. “When people renew their business license next year, they are going to have to say what their solid waste plan is. ... We can take that and create a more efficient system.”
Also, new trash and recycling containers have been installed on Cherry Street to help businesses cut back on some of the waste going into the system.
More progress to be seen in months ahead
While major strides have been made toward goals set forth in the Macon Action Plan, Morrison said a lot of the economic development piece of the plan are “a little bit out of our control.” But that the Urban Development Authority and NewTown Macon have created revolving loan programs to help address specific issues.
“It’s led to positive results, but it’s not in that arena of primary jobs,” he said. “But what we do know is that we’ve moved the needle on the way people perceive downtown as a job attractor. ... So, now we are at the beginning stages of looking into re-accessing that piece of MAP of fixing what needs to be done to really shine a light on the jobs piece. I think that’s been the biggest struggle.”
Downtown areas tend to bring in businesses with five-10 jobs each or restaurants that might hire about 30 workers, he said. While those are good jobs, downtown planners want to capitalize on the momentum now going on so that companies looking for office space might look at downtown Macon.
“They don’t have to be in midtown Atlanta,” he said. “We are thinking we are on the right track.”
Looking ahead, he said the large mixed-use project, called Central City Commons, planned on Poplar Street with lofts, retail, office space, at least two hotels and two parking garages, “should really make a difference.
“But sometimes it’s the small things ... activity in a park, having a smaller event ... that gives people an extra reason to come downtown, and particularly people who may not have ever through to come downtown, to have dinner, to go to a show, to hang out after work,” Morrison said. “It’s providing those opportunities.
“A lot of these things are ongoing and they take time, but we are about to see a lot of things come to fruition in the next several months.”