College Hill improvements front and center for visiting officials

What does it take for a college town to attract and retain talent?

That was one of the questions on the minds of about 30 leaders from universities across Georgia Friday during a visit to Macon to see and hear about economic development, especially the College Hill Corridor project. The corridor is a two-square-mile area between Mercer University and the downtown business district.

The initiative started in 2006 as a student project at Mercer University, and it has since fueled a community rebirth involving millions of dollars in investment in the area.

One impetus for change in those days was a perception that the downtown area was unsafe, said Jessica Walden, director of communications for the College Hill Alliance. The notion was unsettling for both Macon residents and Mercer students.

In 2009, the Knight Foundation awarded a $5 million grant to help revitalize the corridor. The grant provided $3 million to the Community Foundation of Central Georgia to fund a Knight Neighborhood Challenge grant program and $2 million to Mercer University to create the College Hill Alliance.

Since then, the initiative has leveraged nearly $100 million in investments, Beverly Blake, the Macon program director for the Knight Foundation, told those gathered.

Blake pointed to the Beall’s Hill community, an area within College Hill, as being one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Macon, thanks to the project.

“Beall’s Hill is a wonderful example of neighborhood restoration,” Blake said. It’s been a “fabulous return on investment.”

A study of tax property revenue, conducted by what used to be called Macon State College, showed that property tax revenue in the Beall’s Hill area increased by more than $1 million annually from 2002 to 2011. The increase was mostly due to rehabilitation and new construction in the area, Blake said.

“A partnership between a university and private foundation has a potential for so much good,” she told the university leaders during a lunch presentation. What’s important in neighborhood development is “the neighbors have to want it,” she said.

Macon-Bibb County Commissioner Virgil Watkins said having support from the community is also an element for success. He added that with any plan like College Hill, it was important not to rush the plan and thoroughly communicate the intent to the public as well as invite community engagement.

A $2 million bond for improvements on sidewalks and lights around the area just passed out of committee, and it’s expected to receive full support from the commission in an upcoming meeting.

Blake said the bond will pay for itself in about two years from the increase in property taxes collected. Right now, she said the Beall’s Hill neighborhood project is about 40 percent finished.

The key role that a university plays in this type of project?

“It starts with the president,” Blake said. “Bill Underwood had a vision for creating a partnership with Macon.”

To contact writer David Schick, call 744-4382.