With a sharp whistle to quiet chatty passengers, Macon Mayor Robert Reichert turned into Tour Guide Robert Reichert, pointing out a window as their NewTown trolley rumbled along the gravel road through the city landfill.
Landfill up ahead. Animal Shelter on the left. Wetlands all around.
“When you borrow dirt out of the same hole for years, you end up creating a lake,” the mayor explained to his fellow riders.
The landfill was the first stop on a more than two-hour tour Reichert led Wednesday afternoon, as he took about 50 city officials and community leaders on a trip to four of the city’s highlights and lowlights.
The landfill was among the lowlights: It has grown outward and upward and is running out of space to store Macon’s garbage.
It will cost tens of millions of dollars to close and monitor the landfill when it reaches its peak capacity. That is expected to occur in less than 10 years.
To further drive the point home, the two trolleys scaled the mound of buried trash to reach what Reichert said is the fourth-highest point in Bibb County.
“It’s a pretty good panorama of downtown Macon,” he noted.
The other three stops on the trip included another area of concern — the former Macon Homes apartment complex that has been abandoned to weeds, drug dealers and prostitutes — plus two more positive developments in the city: the Beall’s Hill area and Waterworks Park.
Reichert said he hoped by scheduling the tour to begin pointing out to people where the city finds challenges as well as opportunities confronting it.
“I hope they will be more informed, so as to be able to tell their friends, their neighbors, about our strengths and weaknesses,” he said.
One such weakness that officials said could be turned into a strength is Macon Homes. It has been deemed a blight on the Bartlett Crossing community and a haven for criminal activity.
The city and Macon Housing Authority are in the beginning stages of a plan to demolish the buildings and redevelop the site into single-family homes. It’s a project that has been contemplated before, but until federal stimulus funding was announced, had been thought too expensive to complete.
Now, officials are planning a $15 million redevelopment project there. Most of it would be funded by private investment, but what makes it possible in the first place is a $1.5 million infusion of cash from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Neighborhood Stabilization Program.
“We got a shot in the arm that actually might push this project over the edge,” Jesse Gerwig-Moore, Macon’s director of neighborhood stabilization, told tour participants as they gazed upon the dilapidated structures.
They had glimpsed what might be possible during their previous stop in Beall’s Hill, where the housing authority a few years ago razed an outdated public housing project and replaced it with Tattnall Place, a mixed-income residential development. Around Tattnall Place, the city, the housing authority and Mercer University have worked to rehabilitate and rebuild single family homes that were once thought lost to blight.
Housing authority director John Hiscox said time will tell how well the racially and economically diverse neighborhood works out. But the answer, he said, “is the answer to whether or not Macon is going to be viable over the next 20 to 30 to 40 years.”
The tour saved its final stop for Waterworks Park, 180 acres of green space on the edge of the Ocmulgee River. Driving past river overlooks and canoe launches, park executive committee chairman Chris Sheridan said the area provides a place of solitude only a half-mile from the hustle and bustle of Riverside Drive.
“The challenge of developing this park is not to develop it too much,” he said. “This is a place to calm your soul.”
Rusty Poss, a real estate developer who went along for the ride, called the tour “eye-opening.” He had not been to the landfill before or to the Macon Homes site, where he said he was particularly intrigued by the possibilities for turning that neighborhood around.
“If they can get that pulled off, that would be incredible for that area,” he said.
To contact writer Matt Barnwell, call 744-4251.