Politics & Government

Upbeat finances drive plans for Terminal Station

A year short of its centennial, Terminal Station has become an international attraction -- at least on a small scale.

Now owned by Macon Transit Authority, which is headquartered there, the building at 200 Cherry St. is partially restored to its antique glory, and MTA is working room by room on further renovation.

One recently uncovered feature is a long-abandoned tunnel from the rear of the station that runs under the adjacent Norfolk Southern railroad tracks.

As MTA General Manager Rick Jones and his staff were describing the tunnel recently, two women carrying cameras came through the lobby.

Antje Schmidt-Holzhueter and Antje Heclau were on their way to Atlanta for a flight home to Stuttgart, Germany, when they decided to do a last bit of sightseeing in Macon. They stopped at the Macon-Bibb County Convention & Visitors Bureau, and a mention of the Terminal Station caught their eyes.

The name suggested an imposing building, not what they expected to find in a town Macon’s size, Schmidt-Holzhueter said.

But Terminal Station’s soaring arched lobby, gilded ceiling details and polished stone walls and floors impressed them.

So did long-term plans to improve more of the building, in hopes of drawing more rental tenants and perhaps shops and cafes to serve residents of envisioned loft apartments nearby.

“I think we have to come back,” Heclau said.

Jones estimates that the building is about one-third restored. Much of the work so far was paid for with a $6.7 million federal grant Macon got in 2002. That allowed the city to buy the run-down building from Georgia Power and renovate the lobby and some office space. The building, originally completed in 1916 as the station for passenger train service, was rededicated in fall 2010.

There are no solid estimates of how much full renovation will cost, but Andy Stroud, the authority’s marketing and facilities director, has said it will probably take at least as much as has been spent already.

For many years the city subsidized the building’s basic maintenance and operation -- the consolidated Macon-Bibb County government still gives MTA $2.7 million a year for its bus and paratransit service -- but Terminal Station itself is now in the black, Jones and Stroud said.

Income from office leases and renting the lobby for special events not only covers utility, maintenance and security costs, but now lets the authority put something back for emergency repairs. And money accumulated beyond that will go into step-by-step renovation of the building.

NEW DIRECTION

The building has many half-finished or unrestored rooms, which MTA officials would like to see filled with offices and businesses. But about five years ago project manager Tripp Rivers discovered a long-hidden addition: a tunnel, into which steps once led down from the main lobby. It opened outside the building on the far side of multiple railroad tracks, allowing passengers on the farthest trains to walk conveniently into the station.

“That tunnel was probably built when Terminal Station was built, back in 1916,” he said.

But passenger service ended decades ago, and when Norfolk Southern began running only freight trains on the remaining tracks, the tunnel was filled with concrete and dirt.

Now Rivers has broken a hole through the drywall and concrete blocks in the back wall of the men’s restroom just off the lobby. Through it a damp, brick-walled room -- partly filled with red soil and rocks -- can be seen. Ceiling decorations of molded concrete, once covered with marble, remain in a few spots.

“I challenged Tripp to make a door in here,” Jones said. But to avoid tearing out the restrooms, which are needed when the lobby is rented for events, such a door will have to fit in a narrower space than the original tunnel entrance.

The tunnel could be put to a new use, MTA officials and Mayor Robert Reichert said. If it proves to be relatively intact, the fill could be removed and the tunnel extended about 50 feet to come out on Terminal Avenue.

For several years there has been talk of a loft apartment development behind Terminal Station, and loft residents could use the tunnel to get under the railroad tracks and walk out through the station into downtown, Reichert said.

“We’ve done some very preliminary looking,” he said. A concept drawing shows a row of apartments and the tunnel entrance amid landscaped grounds. A one-page schematic by Claxton Architects says three partial blocks could hold 864 bedrooms in three-story buildings.

Reichert said he hopes Macon-Bibb government would have some involvement in aiding the project, such as providing roughly $7,500 for the ground testing needed to see if the tunnel is intact.

SLOW BUILD

In 2012, Reichert failed to persuade Macon City Council to hand over Terminal Station to MTA. He tried again in July 2014, after city-county consolidation, and succeeded. The given reasoning was that ownership would let MTA seek federal improvement grants and open up adjacent land for joint public-private development. The transit authority had already managed the building under contract for several years at that point.

Other agencies’ offices in the building are paying market-rate rent to MTA, such as the Macon-Bibb Information Technology Department. The Macon-Bibb County Planning & Zoning Commission is mulling a move to Terminal Station, too, Jones said. The current home of Planning & Zoning, the Willie C. Hill Government Center Annex at 682 Cherry St., is being considered for redevelopment as lofts and shops, which would require current occupants to leave.

When MTA took ownership of the building, some raised fears that the Georgia Department of Driver Services would go elsewhere if asked to pay rent. But that agency is about to sign a 20-year lease for its current space at market rates, Jones said.

Basic operating expenses for Terminal Station run about $19,000 per month, Stroud said. Office leases now bring in close to $18,000 per month, which should increase to $24,000 when the driver services payment is included.

So office leases roughly cover operating costs, but it’s rental of the lobby and other rooms for weddings, receptions and fundraisers that has allowed MTA to start putting back something for repairs and renovations.

“In 2013 I guess we had maybe 20 to 25 rentals,” he said. In 2014 that was up to 52. Now Stroud is taking reservations for early 2016.

“We are booked every weekend now through the end of the year, with the exception of a couple of cancellations,” he said.

This year Stroud’s goal is to get $120,000 from event rentals, and further improvements would help increase that. Putting in a warming kitchen two months ago has already boosted interest from event planners, and more work is coming.

“We’re on the verge of maybe getting a new sound system,” Stroud said.

Soon after getting ownership of the building itself, MTA got an adjacent three-quarters of an acre from Macon-Bibb. Jones wants to develop that land, the former home of Causey Electric, as a parking lot with landscaping and a water feature to make it welcoming. But that will require permission from Norfolk Southern to also develop the surrounding land, he said.

If the Causey property can become the heart of a good-sized parking area, Jones said, then the parking spaces in front of the station between the new Tubman African American Museum and Georgia Sports Hall of Fame can be taken out. Thus Cherry Street Plaza could become the pedestrian-only space it was intended to be, Jones said.

To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.

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