Social opportunities, community openness and aesthetics are more likely to help Macon retain its residents over time, according to a study released Monday.
The “Soul of the Community” survey, a three-year project by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Gallup, interviewed more than 1,000 people in the Macon metropolitan statistical area from 2008 through this year.
The study, which examined Macon as part of 26 Knight Foundation cities, said people are more likely to be attached to an area if those three criteria are in place. Macon’s MSA includes Bibb, Monroe, Jones, Crawford and Twiggs counties.
“We wanted to understand what causes people to become attached to the place they live,” said Paula Ellis, vice president for strategic initiatives for the Knight Foundation. “We wanted to see what causes them to feel loyalty and pride in where they live. It’s an emotional construction about what people feel and what ties them to the place they live.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Telegraph
Chuck Boulware, a mechanical engineer who works at the Mercer Engineering Research Center in Warner Robins, moved to Macon nearly four years ago from Louisville, Ky. He said he decided to live in Macon because it offers social opportunities not available in Warner Robins.
“Macon has a downtown, period,” said Boulware, who was not part of the survey. “It’s a city with restaurants and things to do.”
Boulware, who lives near Tattnall Square Park, said there’s a lot more shopping options and other activities within walking distance than when he moved here, thanks to the addition of Mercer Village and other amenities.
“With this area and downtown changing, my perception has changed,” he said. “So much more seems to have come about. Part of it is I know the city better, and (part of it is) because there are a lot more new things to do.”
The Macon MSA was grouped for statistical purposes with Milledgeville; Myrtle Beach, S.C.; State College, Pa.; Duluth, Minn.; Biloxi, Miss.; Grand Forks, N.D.; Aberdeen, S.D.; and Fort Wayne, Ind. — all cities of roughly comparable size. Of the 1,023 people surveyed in the Macon MSA, 683 were from Macon and Bibb County.
Social offerings were ranked as the most important attributes to the area, said Katherine Loflin, a consultant on the project. Social offerings include events and other gatherings where people in an area can meet each other.
Aesthetics was found to be the second-most important attribute, according to the study. It’s followed closely by openness — how welcoming a place is to people from all walks of life.
The survey has shown that people in the Macon MSA have become less attached to the area over the years, Ellis said. Just a little more than 56 percent of the people surveyed in 2009 and 2010 are identified as “not attached,” as opposed to about 19 percent who identified themselves as “attached.” The remaining 24 percent are listed as “neutral.”
The 56 percent that are non-attached is a marked increase over the 44.4 percent identified that way in the Macon MSA in 2008, the first year of the survey, Ellis said. It’s also much higher than the national average of 40 percent non-attached, according to the data from the other surveyed Knight cities.
Still, Loflin said, too much shouldn’t be read into that statistic.
“Those that are not attached (to an area), the people have had an opportunity to leave and haven’t done that,” she said. “There’s a 16-point difference (between Macon and the rest of the cities), but there are still a lot of opportunities to change. (Bibb County’s) attachment is higher than the other areas (in the MSA) that were looked at.”
Josh Glenn, a physician at The Medical Center of Central Georgia, returned to Macon with his family four months ago. He previously lived in the city when he attended medical school at Mercer University from 1998 to 2002. He said several factors drew him back to Macon.
“I liked the small-town, friendly atmosphere,” Glenn said. “My perception was that in the eight years I’ve been gone, there are a lot more things going on. There’s more interest in downtown and more family attractions.”
Ellis said the survey data is meant to guide community leaders in identifying what needs to be done to retain more residents and keep them happy, which in turn can spur economic growth.
“It’s up to the residents and leaders to dig in and understand what it means and what they can do,” she said.
Beverly Blake, program director for the Knight Foundation in Macon, Milledgeville and Columbus, said Monday that she sees a lot of benefits from the study’s data.
“I gauged from it that Macon has strengths we can leverage,” she said. “We have the colleges and universities, the arts, and parks, playgrounds and trails — three real areas of strength. We really need to leverage those and make them even stronger.”
Blake said she isn’t surprised by the data that describes what the Macon area needs to work on.
“We have to make a more open community,” she said. “We need more opportunities to share and get to know each other. The public schools need more attention.”
Blake said she hopes community leaders will soon organize a community-wide meeting so people can give ideas of what will make them more attached to the area. She compared it to using the community to organize the College Hill Corridor project by having open meetings for people to give their input.
“We will find a way to ask residents how to take these results and make changes happen,” she said. “(The data) is informative, not prescriptive.”
Andrew Blascovich, spokesman for Macon Mayor Robert Reichert, said the city is engaged in a number of partnerships with organizations around town to foster growth and community spirit. The College Hill Alliance is a partnership between the city and Mercer to improve the College Hill Corridor section of the city, he said. In addition, Historic Hills and Heights is a partnership between Macon and the alliance to improve housing in the historic InTown neighborhoods.
He also cited the city’s Main Streets program, designed to work with businesses and organizations in downtown Macon.
“The biggest thing from (the study) is the connection between the people and the community,” Blascovich said. “Because of the Knight Foundation, we have more interesting things going on.”
Blascovich pointed out such regular community events as Second Sundays, which offer outdoor music concerts at Washington Park, and Friday Fests, organized by NewTown Macon to increase downtown nightlife every Friday night.
“Those kinds of events and occurrences continue to allow an environment where we can be a community,” he said. “There are definitely things we need to work on, such as helping job-seeking college graduates. ... But we have partnerships in place. The seeds that have been planted are already bearing fruit. ... We just have to keep up the momentum.”
To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.