Politics & Government

Soccer could replace Wise Avenue houses

Part of a recently approved plan could see Macon-Bibb County spending $2 million on tearing down houses along Wise Avenue and replacing them with a soccer field for an approved charter school.

“It is important to note that the $2 million budgeted by the city for this project is not an incentive,” Pat Madison, Macon Charter Academy’s board chairman, and school co-founder Charles Rutland said in a joint email. “Rather it is a companion investment to the $9 million in private funding that Macon Charter Academy has attracted to the site.”

Purchase, demolition and clearance likely would cost $1.3 million to $1.5 million, with athletic field construction taking the rest of the Macon-Bibb investment, they said.

“The fields will be primarily soccer, but we hope the architects and planners can come up with a multi-sport design that will allow for baseball and football as well,” Madison and Rutland said. “If space allows we would like a playground to be built there also to broaden its community appeal.”

Clearing about 20 empty, dilapidated houses on Wise Avenue is in the public interest because there’s a clear re-use plan from the school, which can benefit the adjacent Pleasant Hill neighborhood, said Alex Morrison, Macon-Bibb County Urban Development Authority executive director and assistant director of the Macon-Bibb Economic & Community Development Department.

Right now, the Wise Avenue area is “not optimal to be adjacent to an elementary school,” Madison and Rutland said. It sparks a high rate of 911 calls, often for house fires, they said.

“The administration is right to make a definitive commitment to ‘unblight’ this area,” Madison and Rutland said.

The Bibb County school board approved two charter schools at the same time in 2013. The Academy for Classical Education opened this year on New Forsyth Road, but Macon Charter Academy announced in April that it would delay its opening for a year, until August 2015, due to “construction problems.”

On Sept. 30, Mayor Robert Reichert told commissioners during a tour of Wise Avenue that he was “in the very early stages of talking to people who want to open a charter school here,” referring to the troubled longtime site of Progressive Christian Academy. At the time Reichert mentioned a possible $1 million cost.

The school site at 151 Madison St. has been in contention for some time. Christina Perera, a convicted felon, ran the school until her criminal background was discovered in 2012. School founder Betty Tolbert is about two years into a court fight trying to regain control of the school and its assets. Perera was rearrested in Florida in August, while working at a day care center in Fort Myers, but the case goes on. Tolbert’s lawyer Lonzy Edwards wouldn’t comment on the property’s status this week, citing the ongoing court case.

That shouldn’t affect Macon Charter Academy’s plans, Madison and Rutland said.

The groundbreaking on renovation of the Progressive Christian Academy buildings and construction of a new middle school building is about two months away, Madison and Rutland said. Completion of the athletic field probably would lag several months behind the school opening, they said.

The school expects to have 800 students in kindergarten through eighth grade in its first year, and 900 students in the four years after that. Students from Macon Charter Academy would go on to Central High School, according to the charter school.

Madison and Rutland said the new school would create about 60 jobs, with average pay of $40,000 per year.

Reichert has continued to meet with Macon Charter Academy officials, government spokesman Chris Floore said. The administration’s longtime goal of tearing down 100 blighted properties a year will have a bigger impact if demolition is concentrated in one area, leading to redevelopment, Floore said.

“That’s a more effective use of our demolition dollars,” he said.

Late in October, Macon-Bibb commissioners endorsed a plan for multiple major projects, though funding for each part of it will have to return for final approval.

Under “general county projects,” the endorsed plan cites $2 million for Wise Avenue demolition and athletic fields. An Oct. 28 report from financial advisers Davenport & Co. says it would be funded with a bond anticipation note, repaying interest only for five years, then refinanced permanently.

Even if Macon Charter Academy plans hit a roadblock, clearing the burned and collapsing buildings on Wise Avenue for an athletic field is worthwhile, Morrison said.

Officials want to put something useful there, instead of just “trading wood for weeds” by leaving vacant lots to grow up after a house demolition, Morrison said.

And nearby residents could share the facility when it’s not being used by the school, he said. Madison and Rutland said there’s a proposed joint-use agreement, such as one that already exists between Bibb schools and local government for the gymnasium at L.H. Williams Elementary School.

Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report.