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Macon downtowners get active with new City Watch group

About 15 downtown Macon residents and business owners have organized a new group to address the perception and reality of crime in the area.

“City Watch will function to unite all downtown residents and businesses into one voice to increase security, beautify our city and assist local authorities,” said JD Thorne, coordinator for the group.

A few months ago, Thorne, who lives downtown, Keith Watson, the pastor of New City Church on Second Street, and a handful of other concerned downtowners began a discussion about ways to improve safety issues, including vagrancy, panhandling, poor lighting, cracked sidewalks and a lack of parking for visitors.

“The solution for us seemed obvious. It had to come from us,” Watson said Thursday at City Watch’s first regular meeting at The 567 Cafe on Cherry Street. “To continue to simply complain about problems wasn’t going to solve anything.”

Watson said he was aware of the already stretched resources of the Macon Police Department and felt residents and downtown business people could do more to assist officers in dealing with smaller issues related to crime prevention.

“This is where I am every day. I see a lot though our windows,” he said. “Some of our problems downtown are real problems. Some of our problems are perceived problems. The problems with both are that they are hurting downtown and some are the same problems honestly that are taking place all over the city of Macon.”

Richard Tard, a 62-year-old Vietnam veteran, attended the meeting with interest in joining City Watch.

He said many people such as himself, residents of the Dempsey Apartments at the corner of Cherry and Third streets, are blamed for the crime downtown.

“You’ve got the people drinking their beer and using profanity, and harassing women or people trying to eat a meal there at Acapulco. It’s a nuisance,” he said.

“But I personally don’t think it’s so much of the residents. I think it’s a handful of people living at the Dempsey who have visitors outside and don’t have the sense to stop them. But I’m on guard and I’m watching. This is my front yard.”

Watson said City Watch will rely heavily on technology to keep members informed.

“This program will implement crime prevention techniques such as home security and operation identification. It also creates an information sharing network among members using the latest cell phone sharing resources, such as Twitter,” he said.

City Watch also will issue text messaging crime alerts and make online updates on its Facebook page.

Thorne said he has met with members of the Macon Police Department and they are enthusiastic about the initiative.

In recent weeks, he and other supporters also have worked with Mayor Robert Reichert’s office to erase graffiti from about 75 places downtown, he said, citing the beautification focus of the group’s mission.

“Downtown Macon is safe. Certainly a group like City Watch can help promote that fact and improve that fact. The mayor’s office looks forward to working with them,” said Andrew Blascovich, Reichert’s spokesman, who attended the meeting.

As coordinator, Thorne said, he will have a visible presence in the area City Watch monitors, walking the 25-block radius between Riverside Drive and Plum Street and from New Street to Fifth Street. The district also includes the Broadway Lofts building at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Pine Street.

He will serve as a liaison between downtowners and city officials, facilitate crime prevention and security training for City Watch members, conduct monthly meetings for residents and coordinate with service providers such as the Rescue Mission and The Salvation Army to help serve the downtown needy.

Heather Holder, executive vice president of business and residential development for NewTown Macon, which is working with City Watch, said a donation from the Peyton Anderson Foundation will pay for the first four months of operation.

Watson said the group’s monthly budget is $1,200, which covers housing for the City Watch coordinator, printing costs for informational materials and other operational needs.

“This is somewhat unique. You have neighborhood watches and business watches but rarely do you see a hybrid of both,” Holder said. “We’re hoping it will thrive with support from all of Macon.”

James Hill, a resident of Broadway Lofts who relocated from Tampa about a month ago, said he enjoys living downtown and is surprised when people question him about feeling safe.

“Everyone at work says, ‘I can’t believe you’re living downtown,’ ” said Hill, who works at a defense contracting firm in Warner Robins. “This is nothing compared to where I came from.”

Julie Wilkerson, director of the Cox Capital Theatre where Watson’s church holds services on Sundays, said she has had incidents at the theater involving people coming in off the street who were drunk and would not leave the facility.

“The homeless people are for the most part not violent,” she said.

“The whole perception thing is true. I feel that a lot of people don’t want to come to the theater or don’t want to let their children who can drive come. I think if City Watch could correct that perception, that would be a huge step.”

Any downtown resident or business can join City Watch. Annual memberships are $240 for businesses and $60 for residents. For more information, call 722-9909 or e-mail JohnDavidThorne@gmail.com. The next meeting will be in late March.

To contact writer Ashley Tusan Joyner, call 744-4347.

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