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Gallup study shows the economy not key factor in retaining Macon residents

Money isn’t everything when it comes to how emotionally attached Macon-area residents feel to their communities.

In fact, despite the recession, the economy is not a key factor in attracting and retaining residents, ranking well below things such as social offerings, aesthetics and openness, according to a recent Gallup study.

“What we saw this time, surprisingly, was the economic downturn did not impact a person’s connection to the community,” said Beverly Blake, Macon program director for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which is funding the three-year study in Macon and 25 other communities across the country.

The study also found that Macon-area residents feel less attached to their community than in 2008.

While aesthetics — which include a place’s natural beauty, architecture, parks and trails — were said to be a strength, the other two factors identified as most important — social offerings (particularly nightlife) and openness — were found to be lacking.

Social offerings, Blake said, is “the No. 1 driver to community attachment.”

“The more opportunities we have to share experiences, to do things together, the more attached we feel to the community,” she said.

Mercer University student Clint Strefling said he believes downtown is “not as diverse as it could be.”

“I just feel a lot of people don’t go downtown because of the feel of it as just a party scene,” Strefling, a 20-year-old junior, told The Telegraph. “It’s not for everyone. It’s definitely not for all the people at Mercer.”

Education — particularly the area’s colleges and universities — was perceived as a community strength. Respondents, however, were less impressed with the quality of public schools in the Macon metropolitan area. The study included residents of Bibb, Jones, Monroe, Twiggs and Crawford counties.

Certain demographic groups were found to be less emotionally attached to their communities than others. Those included younger, higher-educated residents; the full-time employed; new residents; and those with higher incomes, said Katherine Loflin, the study’s lead consultant.

“These are the people you have to wonder about when the economy gets better. That’s not a group you want to lose,” Loflin said. “In a couple of years when the economy is better and people have choices, ... these people will stick their heads out and look around.”

Ted Goshorn, 26, and his wife might fall into several of those groups. They’re young, educated professionals, and they’re newcomers to Macon.

Helped with a housing stipend from Mercer University, where Goshorn is coordinator of new student programs, the couple purchased a home downtown in the revitalized Beall’s Hill neighborhood.

Goshorn, who grew up in Rome, Ga., said he and his wife, a teacher in the Bibb County school system, like their new hometown and plan to stick around.

“We haven’t put our finger on what it is, but there is something about the town we really like,” Goshorn said. “It’s a really friendly place. I always learn something about the children of the people who check us out at Kroger.”

He sees “a lot of unreached potential” here that might take some financial stimulation to be realized. He agrees that aesthetics are among Macon’s strengths, but he’d like to see better upkeep of sidewalks and streets and more done to make the city “pedestrian friendly.”

OTHER FINDINGS

The study, Blake said, identifies areas that can be improved to prevent “brain drain” and keep the “best and brightest” from moving away.

“We want the people who graduate from Mercer, from Fort Valley State, from Georgia College, to stay here,” she said.

Earlier this year, Gallup interviewed about 400 randomly selected adults age 18 or older. The interviews were about 18 minutes long and covered 86 questions.

Some of the study’s other findings included:

Ÿ The area is perceived to be most welcoming to older people and least welcoming to young college graduates. Sixty-seven percent of respondents gave a “low” rating when asked if this was a “good place for talented college graduates.”

“There’s a pervasive feeling of unwelcomeness to that group,” lead consultant Loflin said.

Mercer student Strefling, a junior from St. Marys, said some businesses make little effort to connect with the university’s student body, but at the same time he understands that students represent only a small percentage of business.

“I do enjoy living in Macon,” said Strefling, who plans to attend law school at Mercer and has a long-term lease on a home here. “I don’t feel unwelcome.”

Ÿ Openness toward gays and lesbians scored even lower: 74 percent of respondents gave the Macon area a low rating for that group.

Ÿ Ratings of the local economy understandably were down significantly from 2008, although they still were not a key factor emotionally connecting residents to their communities.

Ÿ Crime, including violence and gangs, overwhelmingly was perceived as the most important problem facing the community. More than twice as many people as in 2008 chose crime as the most serious problem.

“You have to address the perceived problems, whether they’re real or perceived, while you’re building opportunities,” Blake said. “That’s something our leaders have to take into consideration, whether it’s with a pay scale for police officers or neighborhood policing. The people have said this is something that is of great concern.”

Both Goshorn and Strefling said they feel safe, whether it’s walking the dog or walking downtown at night.

Goshorn said poverty appears to be a bigger concern.

“I almost always am asked for money by someone when I’m pumping gas,” he said. “To some people, that translates into crime. To me, that translates into poverty.”

Ÿ Leadership also was rated significantly lower in 2009. Seventy-four percent of residents said community leaders do not represent their interests.

Ÿ A separate study of the Milledgeville area was conducted with residents of Baldwin and Hancock counties. Social offerings and aesthetics were identified as the factors most important in emotionally connecting residents. Aesthetics and education were identified as strengths of the communities, while the economy was the most important concern.

Baldwin County has been rocked during the past year by several plant closings, including the shutdown of its largest private employer, Rheem Manufacturing.

The county has also lost hundreds of state jobs, and a state youth development campus is set to close at the end of the year.

Hancock is Georgia’s poorest county according to a study done last year by the Department of Community Affairs.

In August, the county reported an unemployment rate of 17.8 percent, one of the state’s highest.

To contact writer Rodney Manley, call 744-4623.

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