As Macon-Bibb fights blight, county deals with crumbling, historic building of its own

The Macon-Bibb County Commission on Tuesday held a lengthy discussion on getting owners of blighted properties to make repairs, while a historic building the county owns is crumbling.

Shortly after the board talked about efforts to reduce blight, the Historic Macon Foundation made a pitch for the county to fix its own property.

The county has owned the Train Recreation Center on Oglethorpe Street since 1966, but the building has sat vacant for years and the roof needs to be replaced soon, said Ethiel Garlington, director of Historic Macon. Vagrants have been using the building and Garlington worries someone could start a fire and destroy it.

The irony of the county owning a neglected building as it fights private property owners over blight was not lost on commissioners.

“We’ve got to set the example for the rest of the community,” said Commissioner Larry Schlesinger. “We can’t point our finger if we are not doing it ourselves.”

The discussion was held at a meeting of the Economic and Community Development Committee. There was no vote, but several commissioners voiced support for saving the building.

“I do think this would be a good idea if we can find a way to do it,” said Commissioner Bert Bivins.

The biggest question was where the money would come from. The county has special sales tax funds for blight, but Commissioner Virgil Watkins said that money is allotted at $1.1 million per year and is already committed through next year. He said he has drafted an amendment that would allow the money to be moved up on the schedule so that work could start.

Commissioner Elaine Lucas asked that a list be made of projects that the board has supported, but not funded, so that they could prioritize those and consider for funding at a later meeting.

Garlington suggested that the building be used for offices for the Bibb County Cooperative Extension Service. The service, which operates the 4-H program, currently is in rented space on Riverside Drive that costs the county $45,000 per year.

Extension Agent Karol Kelly said the service had 20,000 contacts with 4-Hers last year and needs a larger space.

The Train Recreation Center is 12,000 square feet, with an auditorium, so it could have other uses, Garlington said. It could be a community center and could be rented for events, he said, which it has been in the past. It has also been a school and daycare center.

It has an outside area that would allow 4-Hers to have gardening activities, which they don’t have at the current location, Kelly said.

Historic Macon in 2017 made the same pitch to the commission to save the building, and the proposal was tabled. Mayor Robert Reichert said that was done at the time because of uncertainty over how blight funds would be spent. He said the project is now worthy of reconsideration. Two years ago the county had contractors look at the building and were given a rough estimate of $1.5 million to renovate it, Reichert said.

Garlington said he doesn’t have a current estimate of the cost.

The building, across from the Bibb County Law Enforcement Center, was constructed by the Bibb Manufacturing Company in 1920 to provide recreation for employees. The company, a textile plant, gave it to the county with a stipulation that it only be for public use. Therefore, the county can sell it only to a non-profit and it’s not considered likely a non-profit would have the funds to renovate the large structure.

Historic Macon in 2016 put the building on its Fading Five list, which identities historic properties in danger of being lost. Garlington said it’s the last remaining building of Bibb Manufacturing, which once employed hundreds of people.

Although Garlington said the building is sound, there is a hole in the roof covered with a tarp. If something isn’t done with the roof soon, he said, the building is in danger of being lost.

“In the past three years it has declined significantly, from water damage and from vagrants living here,” he said as he gave The Telegraph a tour of the building Tuesday. “So it is incredibly urgent.”

Wayne Crenshaw has worked as a journalist since 1990 and has been a reporter for The Telegraph since 2002. He holds a bachelor’s degree in print journalism from Georgia College and is a resident of Warner Robins.