Creating community vision top priority for Macon-Bibb leaders

CORDELE — During the first day of a two-day leadership conference here, Macon and Bibb County leaders expressed frustration with the community’s apparent inability in the past to overcome problems. But they also showed a willingness to work together to create an action plan to better the community.

About 60 community leaders gathered at Lake Blackshear on Tuesday for a conference spearheaded by Bibb County Commission Chairman Sam Hart. Their goal: to create a community vision and find a way to make it a reality.

“What we do hope to have is a framework that we hope will get us thinking about where we will get as a community,” Hart said.

Participants, including elected officials, government agency representatives, university administrators, lawyers and business people, talked about what works in Macon and Bibb County and what needs improvement.

They spoke candidly of a fragmented community that perceives itself negatively and is afraid of change.

“The community needs an image makeover, both within and for people looking on the outside to come in,” Bibb County Attorney Virgil Adams said. “If we’re not feeling good about ourselves, we’re not going to give the right image to people coming in, and once they get here, they’re going to feel the way that we do.”

At the same time, a lot of good is being done that residents don’t hear about, and Macon and Bibb County have a lot of positive resources that can be leveraged, participants said. Overall, there was a desire Tuesday to take action now.

“I think we’ve really got to embrace the idea of taking risks and progressing with that,” said Macon City Council President Miriam Paris.

Conference facilitators asked participants to examine the community’s successes and areas that need improving.

Some of the successes and positive assets discussed Tuesday include job creation for economic development, affordable housing, downtown development, water and sewer capacity, health care, cultural offerings and higher education.

Areas that could use improvement include the city and county’s public image, transportation plans, community blight as well as poverty and school dropout rates, they said.

“We’re not doing enough to reduce the teen pregnancy rate. We’re not doing enough to eliminate illiteracy. We’re not doing enough for work force development,” Macon Mayor Robert Reichert said.

But none of those issues can be solved unless public safety is addressed first, said John Hiscox, executive director of the Macon Housing Authority.

“If we don’t crack the code on public safety, all these other things we are trying to do are doomed to fail,” Hiscox said. “We have real problems, and we have perception problems, and they all have to be addressed.”

Several participants said they felt positive after the first day of the conference.

“Even as we identify weaknesses, there’s a sense that we can come up with a plan and turn them into strengths,” said Sallie Devero, dean of adult education at Central Georgia Technical College.

Beverly Blake, program director for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, said she sees a “spirit of unity to take the community forward.”

“I think we’ll come out with something exciting to work on,” she said.

The conference is being paid for with a grant of up to $20,000 from the Macon Fund for Excellence in Government at the Community Foundation of Central Georgia. The fund was established by a grant from the Peyton Anderson Foundation.

Hart said he hopes to have money left over and to secure more money for follow-up and implementation.

The Fanning Institute, a public service and outreach unit of the University of Georgia, is facilitating the conference.

Today, participants will prioritize three main issues they want to tackle and come up with implementation strategies.

“This is a very important start here today, but really, the follow-up is just as important,”Hart told participants. “We need you for the long haul, from the ideas to implementation.”

To contact writer Jennifer Burk, call 744-4345.