$35 million to fight blight? That’s how much two Bibb leaders are asking for

Introducing Building Blocks from Blight

Over the next few months, Telegraph will tell the story of blight in Bibb County, one block at a time
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Over the next few months, Telegraph will tell the story of blight in Bibb County, one block at a time

More from the series

Building Blocks from Blight

The Telegraph is investigating blight in Bibb County and its impact on the community. Over the next few months, Telegraph reporter Samantha Max will profile local residents affected by blight in their own communities. If you’d like to be interviewed, you can email her at smax@macon.com or call her at (478) 744-4306.

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The number of unsafe and dilapidated buildings and overgrown lots across parts of Macon has been a source of angst for Macon-Bibb County leaders and residents alike.

The county has spent millions of dollars on blight remediation over the last several years, yet there are still roughly 1,500 blighted residential properties in Macon.

County commissioners Bert Bivins and Virgil Watkins want to explore if another $35 million can be spent on fighting blight. The money would go toward maintaining vacant lots, tearing down homes and for other infrastructure beautification purposes, according to a recent resolution.

Bivins has been one of the county’s staunchest advocates for blight remediation. He chairs a blight committee and pushed for $40 million for blight in the current $280 million special purpose local option sales tax referendum.

The county currently has $11 million in the SPLOST designated for blight remediation. Bibb leaders have discussed using some of the SPLOST money to pay off debt and in turn re-issue new bonds for blight.

“These neighborhoods have been neglected for decades,” Bivins said. “That’s why they’re in the shape they’re in. It’s going to take a long time but if we don’t work at it and do something now and keep doing it, they’re just gonna keep getting worse and worse. “

This wouldn’t be the first time a large amount of bonds would go toward blight in Macon-Bibb. A $14 million bond was used to build the Wise Avenue athletic fields, to make infrastructure improvements in the Beall’s Hill neighborhood and for other projects across the county.

Each county commissioner was also given $1 million of those bond funds to use at their discretion. Some of those projects involved tearing down blighted properties located near a public safety complex on Napier Avenue and renovating the former Bibb Mill auditorium into the centerpiece of an east Macon arts village.

In total that blight bond effort has led to 227 vacant properties being torn down over the last couple of years.

“We’ve learned lessons from the $9 million that we did in round one,” Watkins said. “I would say we’re taking the best practices and leaving those projects and those things that didn’t work so well out.”

Macon-Bibb County Commissioner Joe Allen is proposing a tax on blighted properties in the county. It's modeled after a similar program in Savannah.

The County Commission may also have more flexibility this time around. Using SPLOST revenue on blight requires that the final use of that property would have to be public such as a park.

That same restriction was there for $14 million in blight bonds. However, next time there may be a way to legally use blight bond money for other types of projects, Watkins said.

Maybe the blighted private property transforms into a new home, grocery or convenience store, Watkins said.

“We think the highest and best use of blight dollars is to deal with residential blight while allowing the original owner to retain ownership,” Watkins said. “Placing a lien for the work we do to clean that parcel up and holding owners accountable for work that’s done.”