An east Macon neighborhood that’s one of the oldest in the city has been through several transformations in its lifetime.
It was once part of the Creek Nation and is the home of Fort Hawkins, where the city began. Later, the Bibb Mill plant — a mainstay in Macon for decades — was built there. But after the decline of Bibb Manufacturing Co., a portion of the Fort Hill neighborhood fell by the wayside.
Today, only part of the former mill remains standing near the section of the neighborhood that is connected by Clinton Street. The neighborhood sits in a pocket of land that backs up to the Ocmulgee National Monument, but it’s also a stone’s throw from the Coliseum Medical Centers, the Macon Marriott City Center hotel, the Edgar H. Wilson Convention Center and the Macon Coliseum.
These days, there’s been substantial progress on the vision to create an arts village in the neighborhood, located just east of the Ocmulgee River. The centerpiece of the Mill Hill: East Macon Arts Village will be the Mill Hill Community Arts Center, which is on track for completion in spring 2018.
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The first phase of renovations will likely be completed this month on the center, which Macon Arts Alliance leaders envision will connect artists and residents.
The 7,000-square-foot community center will be in the restored Bibb Mill auditorium, which was built in the 1920s by Bibb Manufacturing Co. The renovation project is being led by Piedmont Construction Group.
While the community center is a vital piece in bringing the neighborhood back to life, it’s just one part of a larger revitalization effort for surrounding areas, said Alex Morrison, executive director of the Macon-Bibb County Urban Development Authority.
The development authority owns the arts center, which will be operated by the Macon Arts Alliance.
“Part of the Macon Action Plan was ... to show this was the first neighborhood of Macon connected to thousands of years of history, to make it a part of this growing urban core that we have as part of a bigger effort,” Morrison said. “It’s not isolated by any stretch of the imagination. It’s not just Mill Hill doing its own thing. We’re all moving together.”
Funding for the $1.3 million in auditorium renovations has come from a variety of sources. There was $800,000 of blight bond money given by some members of the County Commission. An anonymous donor contributed about $211,000 to replace the roof, while other community sponsors have supported the project.
The Historic Macon Foundation is also helping by securing historic tax credits for the neighborhood rehabilitation.
The idea is once we have that a critical mass in that block that it will really draw attention back over onto this side of the river. The Fort Hawkins neighborhood is a great little pocket that’s sort of bound up against the Indian mounds. The intent is to make this initial investment so that it encourages other private investment and gets people excited about living over here.
J.R. Olive, Macon Arts Village Project Director
The community center will have modular seating for events such as dinners or performances. The building’s stage is being restored, and areas are being set aside for a gallery and artist work space. Behind the stage will be a commercial kitchen, although the arts alliance is still seeking a way to pay for appliances.
“It can be used by people who want to do food trucks or these cottage industries where (if) they’re making cakes or canning stuff in their house, they can move into the kitchen,” said J.R. Olive, the Macon Arts Village project director.
The arts alliance is in the planning stages for a list of programs, such as painting and art classes, that it will host in the community center,
“If there are local artists who want to teach their own class, if there are community groups that need a place to host a dinner or community meeting, or if there are enterprising folks who want to produce their own drama and put that on, this would be a great place to do that,” Olive said.
He added, “Really it’ll be up to the community. I think what the space looks like will be informed largely by how the community wants to use it.”
The arts alliance has also received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts that was matched by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. That money will pay for an artist to be the center’s administrator for six months.
A core part of the arts village is also the rehabilitation of 16 homes along Schell Avenue and Hydrolia Street.
The cottages are being purchased with bond money and will be sold to artists. Thus far, three homes have been renovated, and restoration is underway on two other houses as part of a multiyear process.
The arts village will also feature a linear park along Clinton Street.
“The idea is once we have a critical mass in that block that it will really draw attention back over onto this side of the river,” Olive said. “The Fort Hawkins neighborhood is a great little pocket that’s sort of bound up against the Indian mounds.
“The intent is to make this initial investment so that it encourages other private investment and gets people excited about living over here.”
It’s been an enjoyable experience watching the arts village move closer to reality, said Jan Beeland, executive director of the alliance.
“None of this could have been done without a huge collaborative effort. I think that’s been the most rewarding thing,” she said.
East Macon Fall Block Party
When: Saturday, Nov. 4
Where: 404 Church St.
Time: 9 a.m.-9 p.m.
Activities: Live music, carnival, food, demonstrations, kid’s creative arts workshop .
Hosted by: Macon Arts Alliance and Awakening Fires Ministry