The burst of off-campus expansions announced recently by Mercer University will be the last for a while in Macon, though the institution will keep growing, according to a top Mercer official.
“Right now, we believe we have all the property we need for the foreseeable needs,” said Larry Brumley, the university’s senior vice president for marketing communications and chief of staff.
But more construction is anticipated on campus, and the university’s impact on nearby areas will continue to grow in more subtle ways as Mercer partners with Macon-Bibb County government and other organizations to revitalize its surroundings.
As current projects are completed, Mercer’s focus will shift to influencing its surroundings through collaboration with Macon-Bibb government, adjacent neighborhoods and civic organizations, Brumley said.
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In July behind the main post office on College Street, construction began on a 146-unit development called the Lofts at College Hill that will house Mercer students. Then in late October, Mercer President Bill Underwood told Macon-Bibb County commissioners of plans to build a 300-bed student housing complex with an adjacent hotel and restaurant space just across Mercer University Drive from the campus entrance.
Those developments largely are funded by private sources and are the handiwork of developer Jim Daws, who has built several lofts near campus. But future work is likely to be patterned after the recent reworking of College Street with bicycle lanes, new sidewalks and landscaping in front of Tattnall Square Park: a collaboration of Mercer, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and Macon-Bibb County.
While the work on College Street serves Mercer’s interests, it helps more than that, said Macon-Bibb spokesman Chris Floore. Nearby residents, other community groups and Alexander II Magnet School agreed the street and its periperhy needed lots of work, he said.
Mercer’s contribution to the cost of the College Street improvements is one example of its influence on the surrounding area, Floore said.
“The partnership (between Macon-Bibb and Mercer) has been great. We’ve seen a lot of successes over the past few years with that,” he said.
That kind of collaboration is a good model for future projects that benefit the community but also “allow the university to advance,” Brumley said.
For several years the university has focused its attention near its new football stadium, Brumley said. The recently announced student housing and hotel across Mercer University Drive should be finished by August 2016, ending work in that area, he said.
Floore said the Mercer University Drive development, expected to be a $40 million to $50 million project, will serve many purposes: clearing abandoned commercial buildings, creating a long-discussed “gateway” to downtown from Interstate 75 and giving nearby residents a convenient place to shop and eat.
“The neighborhood could very easily benefit from this investment,” he said.
Separate from that development, Mercer is preparing for a number of other major projects. At the end of October, the university announced a $400 million fundraising campaign, of which $109 million is for capital projects on Mercer’s campuses in Macon, Atlanta and Savannah. They include a $15 million medical building in Savannah and $20 million pharmacy building in Atlanta, a $25 million science building in Macon, a $3 million baseball stadium renovation in Macon and $10 million for the existing Macon football and lacrosse complex.
The proposed science building on the Macon campus would complete a “science quadrangle” with existing science, engineering and medical buildings, Brumley said.
“We’re also looking at constructing additional on-campus student housing in that vicinity,” he said. “That would be roughly another 300 beds for undergraduates on the campus.”
The new dorm would be paid for with university housing revenue, Brumley said. When it’s complete, the university should have enough beds and classroom space to accomodate the expected number of students, he said.
Several years ago, Mercer trustees set a goal of 8,500 students by 2018, Brumley said.
“We passed that mark this fall,” he said. Now they’re expecting more than 9,000 students by 2017, up about 2,000 students since 2006, Brumley said.
A majority of those students will still be on Mercer’s Atlanta and Savannah campuses, but the Macon campus will host 3,500 – up nearly 50 percent from 2006, he said. That means slight further growth for Atlanta and Savannah, with the most growth occurring in Macon, Brumley said.
Right now, the Macon campus has 2,748 students, he said. Accommodating 3,500 students also will require expansion of the campus cafeteria, but no additional off-campus development, Brumley said.
A major aspect of Mercer’s influence apart from big-ticket projects is the College Hill Alliance, which has spent several years working to “create a sense of place” near the Macon campus.
“The College Hill Alliance is actually a grant function of Mercer University,” said Jessica Walden, the organization’s director of communications and outreach. “We are Mercer employees at the end of the day.”
The current capital campaign includes $2.3 million for the College Hill Alliance.
The group has been a linchpin of Mercer’s integration with the surrounding community, creating events such as Second Sunday concerts to bring together neighborhood residents and university students, said Heather Pendergast, College Hill Alliance executive director. Local government, the Macon Housing Authority, Historic Macon Foundation and the Knight Foundation all had representatives on the steering committee that developed the 2008 College Hill Corridor plan, she said.
There has been $106 million in private investment in the College Hill area since 2009 -- much of it Mercer-connected, such as Daws’ several loft developments, Pendergast said.
The next focus for the College Hill Alliance or a successor group will be attracting and holding talented people in the area, she said. Economic development strategies nationwide are shifting from incentives for industry to building local talent that can create businesses, Pendergast said.
“The quality-of-life piece is just becoming more and more important,” she said.
That’s something Mercer recognizes, Walden said.
Brumley said Mercer wants to be a good neighbor. University officials are well aware that the Macon campus is surrounded by historic properties, he said. Mercer wants to see those buildings saved and renovated, which would enhance nearby property values, Brumley said.
The College Hill Corridor idea is being enlarged in Reichert’s plan for the Second Street Corridor, which would link the core of downtown to Mercer and the Medical Center, Navicent Health, with a pedestrian-friendly route, Floore said. Eventually it could extend out Eisenhower Parkway to link other colleges into the traffic pattern, he said. The resulting partnerships would have a greater effect than scattered redevelopment efforts, done with the government’s limited resources alone, Floore said.
In the past couple years of talks about how to get to common goals of neighborhood and economic revitalization, Mercer and the other parties involved have all been willing to stay at the negotiating table, he said.
“No one’s walked away,” Floore said.
To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.