Macon, Milledgeville ideas named Knight Cities Challenge finalists

Five Middle Georgians have some good ideas to engage people in their communities.

Out of 7,000 entries from across the country, four Macon projects and one from Milledgeville have been chosen as finalists in the first Knight Cities Challenge.

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation will invest $5 million in creative ways to develop more vibrant communities in 26 cities, including Macon.

The foundation announced 126 finalists Monday for projects designed to retain talented people, expand economic prospects and break down divides.

One of them, Joshua Lovett of the College Hill Alliance, envisions a roving vintage camper traveling the state to foster city pride by showcasing Macon’s best food, goods and experiences through Operation Export Macon.

“The home run would be a vintage mini Airstream,” said Lovett, who has been pricing options.

People can only judge a town by the sum of their own experiences, so Lovett wants to share the positive things going on.

“We really want to showcase how you can live here and do it really well,” Lovett said. “Maybe we’ll pack up Nu-Way hotdogs and Macon beer.”

Geoffrey and Lakey Boyd have just moved from Atlanta to Macon, but each had a project chosen as a finalist.

Geoffrey Boyd wants to create Park Advocate Macon, an organization of volunteers interested in sprucing up local parks and maintaining them as venues for community engagement.

Living next to Washington Park inspired the landscape architect to model the project after Park Pride in Atlanta.

“It’s a really good model,” he said. “This city has a lot of great bones as far as streets, grids and parks. We’re excited about the opportunity.”

His wife is an urban planner who has been working with College Hill Alliance and Macon’s Action Plan.

Lakey Boyd wants to distribute seed money monthly to businesses, causes and organizations through the Make it Happen in Macon Community Venture Capital Fund.

Boyd’s proposal builds on the Knight Neighborhood Challenge and includes online voting for the top five ideas that will be presented in a forum to community judges who choose that month’s winner.

She wants the project to be able to meet challenges on a case-by-case basis.

“People are just risk adverse and are not putting their ideas out there,” Lakey Boyd said. “They’re finding all the reasons not to do something and not hearing, ‘Hey, you can do this.’”

Robert Betzel of SparkMacon wants to build on the success of a new “maker space” on Cherry Street funded by memberships in downtown Macon.

Betzel proposes hiring a full-time director to develop programs for the community in the incubator for creativity that equips people with the tools they need to succeed.

“We’ll be teaching young makers to think differently,” Betzel said. “Failure is part of the process.”

Betzel wants hobbyists to hone their craft and help others use those skills to become entrepreneurs.

A similar project in Milledgeville to foster skills in computer programming and robotics also made the list of finalists.

Making IT in Milledgeville would create a maker space to give entrepreneurs a place to share and build ideas.

Stephen Houser’s idea creates a collaboration among the Twin Lakes Library System, the Ina Dillard Russell Library and Need-a-Nerd tech business.

Betzel said SparkMacon is sharing what they have learned to help get Milledgeville’s project going.

All of the finalists are now working on expanded presentations for the contest.

Applicants were asked: “What’s your best idea to make cities more successful?”

“Through these new connections we hope to grow a network of civic innovators to take on community challenges and build solutions together,” Carol Coletta, vice president for community and national initiatives for the Knight Foundation, said in a release.

Winners, who will share the $5 million, will be announced in spring.

Finalists represent all 26 cities where the foundation invests its resources.

The challenge is part of a $15 million, three-year commitment announced in the fall.

To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.