Economic slump doesn’t stop growth in downtown Macon

During one of the toughest economic downturns, several new small businesses have opened in downtown Macon during the past year or so, helping bring jobs and people to the city’s center.

Not only has the city acquired new restaurants, professional offices and retailers downtown, some efforts aimed at cleaning up buildings as well as attracting people and new businesses downtown have gained momentum.

“Sixteen new businesses opened during our fiscal year from July 1, 2008, to June 30, 2009, that added 156 new employees downtown,” said Laura Schofield, executive vice president of NewTown Macon. “So with 16 new businesses opening during this economy we were really thrilled with that. We think that’s a great indicator of the fact that downtown is happening and is going to continue to happen. ... I would also point to the investments that the new construction and the renovations (bring).”

The new employee count is an estimate and does not take into account the loss of employees from a few businesses that closed during the same period, Schofield said.

Some of the new businesses downtown in the past 12 months include:

Ÿ Lemongrass, a Thai bistro, on Cherry Street.

Ÿ Macon Pizza in the Alley on Mulberry Street Lane.

Ÿ Killian’s, a coffee and pastry shop on the corner of Cherry and Third streets.

Ÿ Kidney Dialysis Center and Macon Medical Group on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Ÿ Bottoms Up, a nightclub that opened on Cherry Street

Ÿ Dolce Vita, a “small-plate” restaurant on Cherry Street

Ÿ Jack & Coat, a men’s clothier on Cherry Street

Ÿ Ruby’s in a Rush, a restaurant, in the Gateway Plaza office building at Walnut Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Ÿ Marriott City Center, a hotel on Coliseum Drive

Greg Smith, co-owner of Killian’s which opened three weeks ago, said “business has increased every week,” and much of the business has been return customers which is a good indication, he said.

Sherie Moses stopped in the coffee shop for the first time last week for coffee and a slice of cheesecake.

Moses said she is “very encouraged” by the number of new businesses downtown.

“There are so many independent businesses downtown,” she said.

In addition to the new businesses, two businesses are moving, but staying downtown. Another business has already relocated.

Construction is ongoing at Capital City Bank’s new 17,300-square-foot office building on a triangle-shaped lot at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Fifth Street. It is currently located on Walnut Street.

Also Buzzell, Graham & Walsh LLP law firm is moving about one-half block on Walnut Street to the former probation office building on the same street. Renovation to the 7,500-square-foot building is still under way.

Attorney Neal Graham said last month that the firm decided to remain downtown because “we would like to continue to support the downtown effort to renovate and revitalize the downtown area.”

Riverside Tire also moved but stayed downtown. It moved this past spring one block to the corner of Second and Plum streets.

While NewTown Macon has been working for a number of years to improve downtown and bring more business and people to the area, the College Hill Corridor Commission — another entity to promote growth downtown — recently got a big boost. The commission is charged with upgrading about 1.5 square miles from Mercer University to downtown. The commission announced in June a $5 million grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Part of that money helped create the College Hill Alliance with a staff for attracting investment to the corridor.

Also, historic plaques have been added to more than 50 buildings throughout downtown that supplement a walking tour of the historic buildings. Events such as First Friday — held on the first Friday of each month — and Thirsty Thursdays — which began in September on a trial basis — strive to bring or keep people downtown after work hours.

Another effort, the Façade Squad, a volunteer effort under NewTown’s umbrella, received a $15,000 grant from the Community Foundation of Central Georgia in January for seed money to help fix up some downtown businesses.

“We go find ugly buildings and make them look better,” said Shae Hinson, who heads up the group. “If (buildings) look unoccupied, it looks dangerous.”

Buildings in disrepair also hurt efforts to encourage new development, Schofield said.

“The premise behind this is that it’s hard to attract investment to downtown if the building across from you or next to you is in disrepair,” she said “If (the Façade Squad) could help fix up some key properties, then it could help leverage investment into other properties downtown which certainly helps everybody.”

The Façade Squad will be working with NewTown on a project launching in December to help clean up graffiti, Schofield said.

Even with the new businesses and renovations taking place, some downtown leaders wonder what could have been if the economy had not taken a dive.

Downtown developer Tony Long, who has renovated several downtown buildings, said the situation with the economy and in particular the banking industry, has taken a toll on mixed-use developments that include housing.

Developments that include residential units have been announced for New Street, the former Dannenberg Building at Third and Poplar streets and the old Capricorn Records studio and the old Rescue Mission building on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

“We don’t have any doubts that we could rent apartments, there is just no financing out there,” because banks now require too much money up front, Long said. “There are three or four projects (in the works) that would change the whole face of downtown, and everything was moving in that direction and it was like we put on brakes 12 to 14 months ago. All of them are still ready to go. I don’t know of anyone who had a project who has backed out completely.”

Last week, Long’s workers removed the temporary wall put up around the former Park Hotel building at the corner of Poplar and Second streets. Quantum Dynamics, a company that manages government contracts, bought the building but the economy put a hold on plans to renovate the interior, Long said. The company’s employees are working out of the Fickling building for now.

But Long said he is encouraged by the new businesses that have opened downtown.

“That’s a good indicator, if we put more people downtown, even more of that would be happening,” he said. “If we had 100 more folks living downtown, it would make a tremendous amount of difference.”

During the past several months, a few businesses have closed, including: Edenz Vegetarian restaurant on Poplar Street; Colors on Cherry, an alternative shop on Cherry Street; and BB&T’s check processing center in the basement of the BB&T office building on Second Street.

New businesses may be coming downtown

At least two new small businesses are looking to locate downtown.

Jimmy Weatherford, president of Crown Candy on Mead Road, said his company has been thinking about putting a candy store downtown for several years, and more recently has looked closely at some sites. “It’s something we’ve loved to do, but there is a lot of hesitation,” Weatherford said.

He said his son, Jamie, is interested in opening a combination candy store and restaurant downtown, but they are still considering their options.

“We have looked at downtown locations and we would love to be down there,” he said. “A lot of (the hesitation) is having the right management team and the time to do it. We are one of the few candy companies that manufacture candy that does not have an outlet either attached to the plant itself or at another location.”

Weatherford said he has only looked downtown “because it’s the heartbeat of the whole town. If you go out to a shopping center, you are just another store opening up. I think downtown is the heart of the city and I expect it to grow ... it has a whole lot of growth potential.”

Tim Oblegoner and other partners are close to closing on the purchase of the building at 473 Cherry St. and plan to put in an upscale sports bar.

The sports bar would be on the first floor of the 4,500-square-foot two-story building. Plans are to have meeting/conference space upstairs and rent out the basement for record storage, said Oblegoner, who is manager of Nash Creek Realty. He is also a partner in the Hummingbird Stage and Taproom, which is across Cherry Street from the future sports bar.

“We will hire a manager, but we are going to run it,” he said. “We are looking for some investors. ... We have secured enough money to buy the building, and we are trying to get budgets and plans together for the renovation. We are shooting (to open) for early 2010.”

Oblegoner said he’s attracted to downtown because of the “cross section of people and culture that you get to experience. ... We seem to pick up and move and get excited about the latest hot spot. But the truth is there is a lot of history and a lot of culture here. ... The foot traffic, particularly the night life, has improved markedly in the last year and a half. Downtown ought to be the heart of the community, and I’m going to do what little I can to make that happen.”

Also, a large, long-range project is planned on Coliseum Drive. A $169 million project with hotels, homes and offices is planned on a 30-acre site across from the Macon Coliseum. It’s in the very preliminary stages. It is predicted the total project would be done in phases over about nine years.

Even though the economy is holding back some of the larger projects, Schofield is encouraged by the businesses that have chosen downtown.

“These kinds of things are examples that business hasn’t stopped downtown during this downturn,” she said. “There is progress and there continues to be opportunities and the national trend seems to be that downtowns can capitalize on the economic downturn.”

To contact writer Linda S. Morris, call 744-4223.