When a little nonprofit was founded 16 years ago to make a new town out of Macon, it sought to fill block after block of empty downtown buildings.
But in recent years, NewTown Macon ended up other filling the kinds of spaces that aren’t surrounded by brick and mortar, becoming woven into the city’s cultural and political life.
It runs parks, museums, music festivals, special events, trolleys and, until recently, a transportation hub. It even operates the Ocmulgee Land Trust, which oversees conservation easements on properties along the Ocmulgee River far beyond Macon.
And NewTown created a “political influence committee” to lobby and promote political causes to both legislators and voters, on topics including a local penny sales tax, commuter rail between Macon and Atlanta and the current effort to consolidate city and county governments.
NewTown’s mission is to increase residents, businesses and jobs in Macon’s downtown core and to create a sense of place. As it expands the types of projects it uses to support that mission, NewTown can be spread thin.
“It seems to me there are negatives to having NewTown so spread out, but what is the alternative?” asked Tom Glennon, a Mercer University professor who basically started the Georgia Children’s Museum downtown. “Without a cheerleader like NewTown, it’s chaos. There’s no vision for downtown.”
NewTown is funded mostly by donations, periodic large grants from the Peyton Anderson Foundation and the business leaders and governments that pay hefty dues to serve on its board.
It draws occasional criticism for its resulting lack of input from low- and middle-income residents from different backgrounds.
But many local leaders interviewed for this story praised NewTown as the only real go-to agency for turning ideas into reality downtown, from keeping the Sports Hall of Fame alive to making a success of First Friday, an event that has raised the profile of the downtown entertainment district.
Where it’s been
Shortly after the Peyton Anderson Foundation was created to help improve the quality of life in Macon and beyond, it spearheaded an effort that became NewTown.
Juanita Jordan, the foundation’s president, recalls that it started with a rumor that Macon might be chosen as the location for the Georgia Music Hall of Fame.
“But downtown was dead, totally dead,” she said. “We had one restaurant, and all the stores had moved out to the mall. I just knew we weren’t going to be able to support the Music Hall of Fame.”
So she began meeting with local developers and leaders, who visited Columbus and its riverfront redevelopment for comparison. Eventually, about 10 of them became the NewTown board.
“Had we not created NewTown and turned downtown around, I’m convinced we wouldn’t have a Bass Pro Shops, because employers don’t move into places that don’t have much to offer and a good quality of life for their employees,” Jordan said.
But NewTown has not achieved all its recent goals. Although it played a major role in drafting a proposal to keep the Georgia Music Hall of Fame alive and in Macon, the state decided last year to close the museum instead.
Some Macon City Council members complained about NewTown’s fees for managing the Terminal Station, and that contract was not renewed when it expired.
And some say NewTown has become involved in projects that don’t fully align with its mission.
But the common refrain is, “Who else is going to do it?”
“So many things just wouldn’t happen if NewTown’s doors weren’t open,” said Josh Rogers, executive director of the Historic Macon Foundation.
As an example, he mentioned Bragg Jam, a downtown music festival that had run a tremendous deficit in its early years. NewTown took over the entire festival, then spun it off after it had stabilized financially. The festival is now considered regionally significant and includes venues outside downtown, too.
“I don’t think Bragg Jam would exist without NewTown,” Rogers said.
Chris Sheridan, the volunteer chairman of a NewTown committee that oversees the popular Ocmulgee Heritage Trail and Amerson Water Works Park, has seen NewTown found a Friends of the Trail group that has grown until it “can walk a bit on its own.”
But NewTown continues to pay $200,000 a year to assist the city with trail maintenance, and it foots the entire bill for Water Works Park, said Laura Schofield, NewTown’s executive vice president.
“Water Works Park would be dead in the water if it wasn’t for NewTown,” Sheridan said.
NewTown’s most high-profile successes include the trail and the park; the Cox Capitol Theatre renovation and reopening; saving the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame from closure by volunteering to run it; and sponsoring and running First Friday, which became so popular it changed to a weekly Friday Fest.
Tony Long, who led a group of developers that spent $1.2 million to overhaul the disintegrating Capitol Theatre into a popular concert and movie venue, said NewTown handled accounting and payroll for the first six months of the theater’s operation. The nonprofit also bought the building initially before selling it to Long’s team.
“They are the first group ever downtown with some money to back up what they say they will do,” Long said of NewTown. “We’ve had plan after plan since I got involved in the ’80s. Theirs are the only plans that take shape and happen.”
Schofield said she thinks the Capitol Theatre renovation was a turning point because it spurred events such as Bragg Jam and the Macon Film Festival.
Local leaders list among NewTown’s greatest strengths its ability to raise money, marshal volunteers, work with other agencies and work well with its board.
But like many nonprofits, NewTown has slimmed down in recent years.
“Fundraising has been pretty tough,” NewTown President and CEO Mike Ford said. “We’ve had to watch pennies and work with partners to add board members.”
But NewTown expects to meet the $7.5 million goal of its current five-year fundraising campaign by June 30, Schofield said. According to its most recent audit, NewTown had $5.9 million in net assets in 2011.
Most of NewTown’s $3.5 million budget for 2012 comes from private grants and fundraising. The Peyton Anderson Foundation continues to be its single biggest contributor. In recent years, almost the only public funding was for construction and operation of the Terminal Station, Ford said.
Schofield said NewTown will begin another fundraising campaign in July with a goal of $5 million.
NewTown is able to maintain its donation stream partly thanks to a large, strong board made up of local government officials and business leaders, said Mike Dyer, a board member and interim president and CEO of the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce.
To have a representative on the board of more than 40, governments and large companies pay $10,000 a year, Schofield said. Small businesses pay $2,500.
“The business community is concerned about results, and NewTown has shown they can take the money and accomplish a lot with it,” said Dyer, who has served on the NewTown board about a dozen years.
Plays well with others
Local leaders say NewTown generally works well with other agencies, although that cooperation could be even better.
Part of NewTown’s new five-year planning process involved meeting in a large group with other public and private agencies to better hone everyone’s role and eliminate duplications, said Kristi Harpst, a planner for the Middle Georgia Regional Commission.
An example of this division of labor is that NewTown will concentrate on increasing residential rental units downtown, while Historic Macon is starting a program to increase apartment ownership there.
NewTown’s draft five-year plan calls for these agency meetings to continue, said Harpst, who is helping draft the plan.
Rogers said NewTown is more flexible than some other groups working downtown.
For example, the city’s economic and community development department, where Rogers used to work, must wait a long time for spending approval because costs are funded by tax dollars. NewTown was able to move faster, and sometimes it just filled gaps, Rogers said.
When ECD had spent all its monthly budget for color copies, NewTown would step in, he said. When ECD wanted to buy a movie screen to use for showing movies outside in city parks, NewTown could more easily and rapidly set up an account to accept donations.
“So ECD came up with a way to bring people back to city parks at night, and NewTown provided the means to make it happen,” Rogers said.
NewTown worked with the College Hill Alliance, an organization that tries to speed up the revitalization of neighborhoods connecting Mercer University and downtown, to bring a new pharmacy to the corner of College and Forsyth streets where a derelict gas station had been. Before the alliance was created, NewTown housed several employees for its predecessor, the College Hill Corridor Commission.
NewTown has become even more collaborative recently, partly because partner organizations have multiplied and partly because the poor economy has demanded creativity.
NewTown has worked closely with the others to develop alternative financing for redevelopment. For the Cotton Street Lofts, the Macon-Bibb County Urban Development Authority is helping NewTown apply for a Georgia Cities Foundation loan, with Historic Macon contributing the application for historic tax credits, Schofield said.
But some are more critical of how NewTown works with others. For example, Glennon said he thinks coordination could be improved between renewal efforts downtown and in College Hill.
And NewTown’s relationship with the city has been strained at times.
Former Mayor C. Jack Ellis once resigned from his seat on the NewTown board, saying it was because he was too busy. But in an interview last month, Ellis said he resigned partly because he thought NewTown was sometimes working against the city. Ellis said NewTown did not help when he asked for assistance with keeping the new drivers license bureau and the Social Security Administration offices downtown.
Ellis said that when he ran for mayor again last year and asked Ford for his support, Ford told him that if Ellis were re-elected, Ford would resign rather than work with him.
Transparency and public engagement
NewTown provides some services more typically provided by local governments. On the upside, taxpayers don’t have to foot the bill. The downside is that its actions don’t face the same kind of public scrutiny that governments do through open meetings and open records laws.
However, Ford said NewTown’s board meetings are now open to the public. The organization has also become much more open with its financial records in recent years.
Ellis said he thinks many of the functions that NewTown performs should actually be handled by the Urban Development Authority, which was created by law to pursue a similar mission and is answerable to elected officials. But he said he has been disappointed in that authority’s efforts compared to NewTown’s.
The high cost of serving on the NewTown board and its focus on creating expensive loft apartments downtown has led some to question whether an underlying goal is to gentrify downtown for white people.
“There are some people that think that giving money to NewTown is giving money to a white group and not going to affect black folks,” Glennon said.
“Like every nonprofit, you want people on the board who support your mission, and one way they do that is by donating,” Rogers said. “The fact that NewTown Macon has the top tier in business and political leadership on its board is one of the reasons it’s so successful. But that means you’ve got to be a lot more intentional about holding public forums and providing opportunities for people to weigh in.”
Ford acknowledged, “They say we’re run by white businessmen. Because of the way we raise our money, that’s accurate. Most bigger businesses here (that pay for board seats) are run by white guys. But we’re not trying to make downtown Macon white.”
Ellis said one reason for his withdrawal from the NewTown board as mayor was that he didn’t think the board represented the diversity of the community.
“He who pays the piper calls the tune,” he said. “Based on how much you give, you have a voice.”
Ellis suggested that NewTown reserve some seats for people who can’t afford to pay but who have good ideas and vision.
Ellis and others said they’d like to see NewTown develop more mixed-income housing downtown, on the model of Oglethorpe Homes. The Macon Housing Authority used a federal grant to replace that public housing complex in Beall’s Hill with an attractive, mixed-income apartment development.
Ford said the types of housing being created downtown are based on a consultant’s analysis that demand comes mostly from young professionals in higher-paying jobs.
“We’re building units to meet that demand,” Ford said. “We’re not in the low-income housing business.
But Schofield noted that the Macon Housing Authority recently took a seat on the NewTown board, which might generate some new ideas. And the upcoming Dannenberg renovation project, expected to create almost 70 apartments downtown, is also slated to include some middle-income units.
Schofield said NewTown recently started a group called the Macon Millennials for young adults who are not necessarily affiliated with a corporation or small business but are committed to seeing downtown flourish. They will be running focus groups for NewTown.
“We hope to bring in perspectives we wouldn’t get from our board through that process,” she said
To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, 744-4225.