Macon-Bibb community leaders discuss downtown growth

By concentrating growth in a downtown area, a city ultimately can see a savings of tax dollars.

That was one of the themes Thursday in a presentation by Smart Growth America to local community and business leaders during a session designed to develop strategies to stimulate downtown Macon.

It’s the second workshop that Smart Growth America -- a national nonprofit that received funding from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development -- has conducted in Macon. The workshop was sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Chris Zimmerman, vice president of economic development for Smart Growth America, said his organization conducted research in five locations -- Macon; Madison, Wisconsin; West Des Moines, Iowa; Dona Ana County, New Mexico; and Indianapolis. The studies examine whether a city is better off growing over a large area within its limits or concentrating on a specific area, such as downtown.

“It’s a lot more economical to (grow) downtown than it is to disperse it,” he said during a Wednesday interview. “Sprawl costs more.”

Zimmerman noted a few reasons why downtown growth should be encouraged. One main one is that a downtown already contains existing infrastructure, so it’s cheaper than expanding into previously undeveloped areas.

Moving into a different area, Zimmerman said, means having to expand water/sewer services, garbage pickup, school bus routes, fire protection and other services, meaning more tax dollars spent. A downtown area, he said, already has many of these services in place.

Zimmerman also said walkability is a growing trend in cities across the nation, and a downtown’s walkability makes for higher real estate values and is more attractive to potential residents and businesses.

“Companies are moving to where the talent is,” he said. “They are moving to downtowns instead of these office parks. Walkable places are showing that real estate is at a premium.”

In Macon-Bibb County, Zimmerman’s data shows that while the entire county grew from 150,000 in 1980 to 155,000 in 2010, the population within the former city limits during that time period dropped significantly, from about 116,000 to 91,000.

Zimmerman’s research also shows that Macon’s downtown has significantly higher property values per acre.

Smart Growth America’s workshop is helping to build on ideas already underway in Macon, said Alex Morrison, executive director of the Macon-Bibb County Urban Development Authority.

“We’re integrating this work with the Macon Action Plan to show where we are,” Morrison said. “This presentation shows why efforts like MAP are so important. It’s a choice people make to live here and work here. ... It’s really about growing the entire community in a sensible way.”

John Robert Smith, a senior policy advisor for Smart Growth America, said a city such as Macon could get a better return on investing its assets. He said the decisions the current generation of leadership will make in the next few years will have a lasting impact.

“I truly believe there’s an opportunity (in Macon),” he said. “You have the leadership here with elected officials and private companies to brighten the future for your grandchildren. This generation has to have the courage to seize the opportunity. I think you have a good foundation built and can capitalize on it in an even larger way.”

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.