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Commercial blight: Empty buildings don’t necessarily mean blight, says NewTown leader

When it comes to commercial blight in downtown Macon, perception can often alter reality.

Josh Rogers, president of NewTown Macon, said one of the biggest challenge his organization faces in its effort to bring new businesses and people downtown is changing how people view empty buildings.

Of course, downtown does have its fair share of buildings that need significant work done or need to be razed entirely.

However, just because a building is empty and a storefront is vacant doesn’t make the property blighted, he said. Most of the properties NewTown shows to prospective buyers and renters are in pretty good shape, but two or three empty buildings on the same block can present the idea that the area is dying commercially.

Rogers said nothing could be further from the truth, especially in three particular downtown blocks that NewTown has targeted for revitalization.

“In 2012, we began to focus on three target blocks, and it was about 50 percent vacant,” he said. “Right now, it’s only about 31 percent vacant. If you can get new storefronts and concentrate where they are, people are going to notice.”

NewTown, its downtown partners and commercial developers have had a great deal of success increasing downtown living over the past few years as the number of available lofts has increased dramatically from 214 in 2012 to 396 now. The commercial growth that needs to develop alongside the residential growth has come along a little more slowly, Rogers said.

“Part of it is market-driven,” he said. “For every 15 lofts, we try to get one new storefront.”

The occupancy of new storefronts has grown slowly but steadily, Rogers said, noting that the three target blocks -- bordered by Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, and Cherry, Second and Plum streets -- are expected to reach 70 percent occupancy by the end of 2015.

NewTown has been able to protect certain storefronts on its target blocks using the Transitional Property Fund, which allows someone to donate or partially donate a building to NewTown, which in turn matches the property with developers.

NewTown has used the fund, for example, to protect the space along Cherry Street, allowing for businesses such as Travis Jean and Doughboy Pizza to open. In addition, there’s other available commercial space and multiple residential units.

The fund also has protected property on Poplar and Second streets.

NewTown commissioned a study through Philadelphia-based urban planners Interface Studios to survey the entire downtown area on both sides of the Ocmulgee River. One of the study’s findings is that about 30 percent of the area is considered to be either inactive or underutilized, including 13 percent which is vacant land.

TAKING AN ACTIVE ROLE

Blair’s Discount Furniture has been downtown since the 1970s and moved into its current Third Street location in 1982, owner Diana Blair said.

When it first opened, many downtown businesses had already fled south because of the growing commercial center on Eisenhower Parkway near Macon Mall.

But these days, Blair said, there’s a different vibe downtown, and businesses are returning as the number of lofts continues to grow.

“To me, downtown is the most select place in Macon, Georgia,” she said. “All of the restaurants, the arts and entertainment, all of the people living in lofts -- we have the riverwalk, parks, beautiful architecture. ... A lot of people want to be in a downtown environment.”

Blair recognized the trend and became a part of it, converting her old storage facility into a mixed-use residential/commercial property facing her furniture store on Third Street. The building contains four lofts, three of which have already been rented out, and two commercials spaces. One space is occupied by Gallery West, featuring the photography of Kirk West, while the other hasn’t yet been leased.

Blair said the key for downtown to avoid commercial blight is for other owners to maintain their properties and find new uses if they are empty.

Too many owners, she said, are waiting for a prospective business seeking to rent a downtown property and pay for renovations themselves.

“A lot of owners are letting their buildings sit and deteriorate,” she said. “Code enforcement needs to kick in and have the owner either sell or renovate the building. A new tenant isn’t going to have the money to go in and renovate a building; they barely have enough money to open their business.”

Rogers said it’s important to find the right kind of fit for businesses downtown. Most major commercial chains aren’t looking to relocate to downtown, but smaller boutique-type shops and eateries help add to the vibe.

“We need to drive suburban visitation and tourism,” he said. “We need more feet on the street. ... We need boutique stores. If you’re coming in from Jones County, you’re seeing new things. Rather than go out for a dinner and a show at different places, just come downtown -- that’s your entertainment plan.”

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