Decades ago, Macon’s downtown flourished, and businesses were everywhere. Downtown was the center of community activity, the home of movie theaters and other entertainment. Trains pulled in and out of the Terminal Station hourly.
And then someone flipped a switch. The trains stopped running, the interstate highway system was completed, and cars started appearing in every driveway. Many of the stores left the downtown area for newer shopping locations. Others went out of business as competition from larger national concerns increased. Macon started to experience its own brand of urban sprawl, and the weekend trips downtown were no longer considered special.
A new generation grew up in what was considered the outskirts of town, now well within the city’s limits. As the population grew (according to the Census Bureau, between 1940 and 1960, Bibb County’s population grew by 57,466 residents), the character of the community started to change, too. By the 1980s, when the population was 150,000, five years after the opening of the Macon Mall, downtown, in spite of many efforts, was all but abandoned. There was even a cockamamie idea to turn Terminal Station into a shopping mall. Even the four majestic eagles that grace the front entrance of the building were given away.
Now those efforts to save downtown are starting to bear fruit. Older buildings, some previously abandoned, are coming back to life as loft apartments. People are walking the streets again, and restaurants are opening. Smart Growth America, a not-for-profit that’s studied Macon; Madison, Wisconsin, West Des Moines, Iowa; Dona Ana County, New Mexico and Indianapolis, has found that growing a city’s downtown is more efficient and cost effective than trying to grow over a large area. Detroit would also be a good case study as it tries to rebound from seeing its population drop from 1.2 million in 1980 to 688,000 in 2013, according to the Census Bureau. The city is trying to shrink its footprint. The more spread-out a city, the more it stretches city services such as water and sewer,police and fire protection, etc.
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According to Smart Growth America, companies are locating where the talent is -- and the new generation of talent enjoys city life. They want to see and experience recreation, continued learning and entertainment opportunities. As our community addresses this issue on a number of fronts, we have to remember that while we’ve won a few battles, the war rages on. The city’s core has still experienced a dramatic loss in population -- from 116,000 to 91,000 people in a 30-year period between 1980 and 2010. We’ve got a long road back.
Our challenge is not whether we grow or not, but how to grow smartly so the entire community receives the benefit. There’s one thing we know from the experience of many other cities that have turned their fortunes around. Cities with healthy downtowns are healthier cities that attract more talent, and that attracts more businesses that produce more jobs.