Grant gives College Hill Corridor plan big boost

A huge grant announced Monday will be used to improve the neighborhoods between the Mercer University campus and downtown Macon.

The $5 million grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation was awarded to the College Hill Corridor Commission to support its master plan for the area. Mercer and the city of Macon have been partners in plans to upgrade the corridor, which covers about 1.5 square miles and includes the InTown and Beall’s Hill neighborhoods.

“I love M&Ms!” Macon Mayor Robert Reichert told an audience of more than 100 people who gathered at Mercer Village for the news. “Macon and Mercer go together hand in hand.”

The grant is the largest award the Knight Foundation has ever given in the Middle Georgia area, officials said.

The money will be split between two parties: $3 million will be given to the Community Foundation of Central Georgia to fund the Knight Neighborhood Challenge, projects that come from the ideas of residents, students and businesses that improve the corridor area. The other $2 million will be sent to Mercer to form the College Hill Alliance.

The alliance, said Mercer President Bill Underwood, will focus on accelerating the revitalization of the neighborhoods in the corridor area and attracting public and private investment to the corridor.

The alliance will have a staff of three who will be responsible for implementing the elements in the corridor’s master plan.

Sarah Gerwig-Moore, a Mercer law professor who has served as co-chairwoman for the commission for the past two years, said the search for an executive director for the alliance will begin immediately.

The grant is the second one the Knight Foundation has awarded to the commission. The first grant came last year, a $250,000 award to develop the commission’s master plan.

Beverly Blake, the Knight program director for Macon, Columbus and Milledgeville, has been a major supporter of the corridor concept for the past couple of years. She said the commission is an opportunity to get a broad base of the community working together to improve the corridor neighborhoods that has been the draw for her.

“The fact is, it’s been a broad-based, transparent commission,” she said. “It’s being led by the people of Macon.”

That community participation was the key component for Knight Foundation board members, said Trabian Shorters, vice president of community programming for the foundation.

“The Knight Foundation has never made a grant like this one,” he said. “It says, ‘your community needs you.’ It requires the folks that live here to step up. If you have an idea to improve the community, the money has been set aside to get it going. It’s a call for people to get involved.”

Several officials at Monday’s news conference referred to the grant as a “catalyst,” since they hope the money will help lead to more investment in the corridor from other sources.

“The truth is, this is a great master plan, but we need the financial resources to implement it,” Underwood said. “(The grant) is a great step forward to fully achieve what we want to achieve. ... We’ll use it as a catalyst to secure more investment in the corridor.”

Already, the grant could help the commission win money from the federal transportation enhancement bill now before Congress. U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall, D-Ga., has included about $5.7 million in earmarks in the bill for the corridor project, specifically to help with infrastructure improvements.

Mercer has committed to match 20 percent of the amount the government commits to the process.

Marshall said the Obama administration is seeking to delay passing the bill to focus on other issues such as health care. However, he said congressional leaders are pushing to have the president sign the bill this year.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if it isn’t until 2010” before the bill is signed, Marshall said. “If the bill is passed, we’ll know what we will get before it is signed. ... It’s going to take longer than we thought, but leveraging is an important factor in how these things get done. (The grant) makes the project more attractive.”

Gerwig-Moore said the commission already has launched several successful initiatives over the past year, based on projects listed in the master plan. Some of those include the Second Sunday brunches at Freedom Park, Mercer Bike Week and the Summer Movie Series.

For the people involved in the long-term process of creating the commission, Monday’s gathering was either a long time coming or a quick turnaround on the project, depending on who’s asked.

Gerwig-Moore said it seems like yesterday that the project got rolling.

“These two years have flown by,” she said. “A lot of things have already changed. But we’re all somewhat impatient. People want to see permanent changes.”

Matt Wetherington, a third-year Mercer law student who was one of the original four students who began creating the commission as part of a class project, said that now seems long ago.

“It’s overwhelming to see something you believe so much in to get this recognition,” he said. “It’s really overwhelming. I don’t know if it moved fast enough, but this was an opportunity to grab hold of an opportunity and make something better for ourselves.”