If we could hop into a time machine and head back to 1996 — the year NewTown Macon began with funding from the Peyton Anderson Foundation — what would we see downtown? Abandoned and empty storefronts everywhere the eye could see. Blighted buildings — seemingly ready to fall in on themselves. Few signs of commercial life.
According to NewTown’s Josh Rogers, in 1996 there were only 28 apartments in all of downtown, and the upper floors of all buildings were abandoned. Though Macon had the Ocmulgee River running through it, the only place one could view it was while crossing a bridge.
Fast forward to 2011 and much had changed. Residents could now walk the river courtesy of the Ocmulgee Heritage Trail, and more was coming. But much had not changed. Most of the upper floors in downtown buildings were still empty and dilapidated. In 2012 only 52 percent of the buildings were occupied and 41 percent of the parcels were completely vacant. But change, not overnight, was on the way.
In English that means, more development downtown means stable property taxes for everyone.
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By 2016, 70 percent of the downtown buildings were occupied and only 21 percent of the parcels completely vacant having neither a storefront business or a loft apartment. Something was definitely going on in downtown Macon. Now, according to NewTown, there are 456 market rate residential units and more on the way. A study shows there is demand for one million more square feet of residential and commercial space. And here’s the “I-don’t-live-downtown-so-why-should-I-care” paragraph. Rogers explained at Wednesday’s Downtown Rotary Club meeting that every square foot of space that’s invested in downtown redevelopment increases in value by $110 in property tax. In English that means, more development downtown means stable property taxes for everyone.
What we see as we gaze at downtown today is much different from our 1996 time machine view. Where there was but one restaurant there are now 51. Where there was no nightlife there are now 15 music venues and 13 bars and six art galleries. While the Rookery has always been a staple downtown, it was impossible in 1996, to walk in and not walk out smelling like an ash tray. That’s all gone. The only complaint nowadays is that you had better get there early if you want to find a seat — and smoking is not allowed.
The Capitol Theater in 1996 was falling in on itself ready to implode. Now, as the Cox Capitol Theatre, downtown strollers can eat, drink, listen to live music and be merry.
Downtown’s reputation, undeserved, was that it was a scary place. The only reason it was scary is because after the close of business there was nobody around. That’s all changed as groups of people are walking all over the downtown area.
Who is driving this renaissance? There are many drivers, however if you want a clue look to the millennial demographic. They are single or newly married. They are not yet ready for the suburbs. They enjoy the urban vibe and they want to live and experience other creative professional people. The cities that can attract this age group, those who were probably just entering elementary school in 1996, will be successful at attracting businesses who need those creative professionals to fill jobs we didn’t know would exist 21 years ago.
The Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce used a slogan for many years, “Macon on the Move.” That was aspirational because some of the time, Macon was actually stagnant and taking body blows. Downtown was dead; Brown & Williamson closed in 2004. But we have had more success than failures and they were not confined to the downtown area.
Just last month the Macon-Bibb County Industrial Authority announced Star Snacks LLC, was going to build an $18 million peanut roasting and packaging facility in Macon. Kumho Tire opened its first U.S. tire manufacturing plant a year ago and all of Bibb County’s industrial parks are AT&T designated fiber ready as those responsible for luring business clients to the area understand that to attract 21st century businesses you need 21st century bait. While on the “move” might be passé, we are definitely on a long steady “march.”