Elections

Reichert reveals plans for final term, reflects on past

While running for mayor of Macon in 2007, Robert Reichert teamed up with Nu-Way Weiners for his marketing campaign.

It was a simple yet effective message. One side of a coupon offered the landmark Macon restaurant’s hot dog for free, and the other side bore Reichert’s slogan: “Let’s do things a Nu-Way. Let’s work together for a change.”

Reichert, already a political veteran, went on to win the Democratic primary and general election to earn his first term as mayor. On Tuesday, the 67-year-old was re-elected for his fourth term, this time marking his second as head of a consolidated Macon-Bibb County.

As Reichert embarks on becoming the longest-tenured mayor in Macon’s modern history — reaching 13 years when the next term ends in December 2020 — he and other officials who have worked with him closely explore his accomplishments, legacy, challenges and plans for the future.

Reichert’s march to the mayor’s office included a career as an attorney, and he was a Macon city councilman from 1987 to 1992 and a state representative from 1993 until 2003. But by far, he said, being mayor has been the toughest job of all.

“It doesn’t come easy,” he said. “We’re still pushing rocks up a hill, but we have four horses now in harness and pulling in the same direction.”

Reichert was uncontested on Tuesday’s ballot after the April 29 death of former Bibb County Commissioner Lonzy Edwards. This will be Reichert’s final term as mayor. Under the consolidation charter, the mayor and commissioners can only serve for two consecutive terms.

Reichert rolls into final term with eye toward transportation

The prominent phrase in Reichert’s last years in office likely will be “2020 vision,” a play on perfect eyesight and the final year of the term, which ends in December 2020.

“Where do you want to see this community in 2020?” Reichert asked. “Let’s continue this progress that we’re making and be the hub city of Middle Georgia.”

For Reichert, the next four-plus years in office will be an opportunity to advocate for ideas and projects he says will be critical to Macon’s future. Major emphasis will be made on expansive transportation projects that he is betting will promote economic development.

“I want to have regional connectivity,” Reichert said.

One of the goals is to continue pushing for a passenger rail system stretching from Macon to Atlanta. Reichert said he remains unfazed by the lack of momentum the discussion has gained in the state Capitol.

“Let’s finally achieve some kind of alternative transportation between Macon and Atlanta,” he said.

The completion of the Fall Line Freeway, which would run from Columbus to Macon to Augusta, is another effort Reichert said he favors. It could help “create a transportation and logistic hub in south Bibb and north Houston County.”

Still on the top of Reichert’s list is an electric bus route that he envisions eventually will run from the downtown Second Street Corridor to areas around Macon Mall, Middle Georgia State University and Emery Highway. The county and the Macon Transit Authority will continue to seek grants and other methods to pay for the buses.

Another of Reichert’s ideas is a belt line that would loop around Macon’s urban core, starting at Tattnall Square Park and covering streets such as Hawthorne and Fifth, continuing on toward the Ocmulgee Heritage Trail.

Recently, Reichert also has pushed for a minor league baseball stadium that could be built as part of a larger plan — complete with retail, office space and housing — that would become a “catalyst for larger economic development.”

County officials recently visited officials in South Carolina to get an up-close look at the impact ballparks are having in Greenville and Columbia.

“We learned so much on the trip that you just don’t build a standalone stadium,” Reichert said.

He also wants to continue attracting businesses to Macon. Since Reichert has been in office, among the companies that have opened or expanded operations are Kumho Tire, Tractor Supply Co. and First Quality, which makes both diapers and plastic packaging in Macon.

In the next four years Reichert also said he will advocate for a tunnel and runway project at Middle Georgia Regional Airport. The 6,500-foot runway needs to expand to 8,000 feet, he said, in order to be long enough to entice more companies to the city.

The estimated $40 million project likely would be funded with a 90 percent federal grant and a 10 percent match that’s split between state and local money.

“We have the shortest runway of any major area in Georgia, yet we’re the fourth-largest revenue producer,” Reichert said. “This ties into the (Macon-Bibb) Industrial Authority’s idea of transportation and logistics being a source of jobs.”

Macon-Bibb leaders detail Reichert’s accomplishments, challenges

Macon-Bibb County Commissioner Larry Schlesinger’s time in office mirrors Reichert’s career as mayor. Schlesinger, the rabbi at Temple Beth Israel, was elected to Macon City Council in 2007 and won another term as the District 2 county commissioner.

Schlesinger said the Reichert era will be remembered as one that led Macon-Bibb through the early years of consolidation.

“I think when the history of this time is written and people look back, I can’t help but feel the mayor’s leadership will be regarded as pivotal in terms of moving the city forward,” Schlesinger said.

A benefit of consolidation has been Reichert’s ability to more effectively manage the city-county, several officials said.

While serving over a larger Macon City Council that also required working with the county, “often nails would get thrown in his way that sort of slowed down if not impeded the progress he was looking for,” Schlesinger said.

Reichert has played an important role in economic development throughout Macon-Bibb, with projects, such as the Second Street Corridor, that are changing the landscape around the urban core of Macon, Schlesinger said.

“All in all, with what’s happening in Bibb County, there’s a lot to be very proud of, and constituents can look to the future with cheerful trust because of Reichert’s leadership,” he said.

Former Bibb County Commission Chairman Sam Hart said that while he and Reichert were head of Bibb County and Macon, respectively, there were some disagreements they had to work through. But there never were any “cross words,” and both men were able to do what was best for the community. Hart, now chairman of the Macon Water Authority, also serves on the Macon-Bibb County Industrial Authority with Reichert.

Hart said he’s witnessed Reichert’s ability to adapt through his years as mayor.

“I think he’s grown into the position, to be honest. I’ve seen an increased willingness to listen to the whole community,” Hart said. “That’s why I think he’s done such a great job in consolidation.”

Reichert also has understood the impact that a vibrant downtown has on the economic development of the area, said Alex Morrison, executive director of the Macon-Bibb County Urban Development Authority.

Over the past several years, the number of businesses and residents in downtown has surged with the help of some multimillion-dollar investments and Macon-Bibb’s collaboration with agencies such as NewTown Macon, a downtown booster organization.

“(Reichert) understands how (downtown) is really the front porch of the community,” Morrison said.

Commissioner Elaine Lucas said she admires Reichert’s commitment to Macon-Bibb and his ability to build partnerships. While attending various events, including statewide meetings, he’s always made sure that others take notice of Macon, Lucas said.

Her time working with Reichert dates back to when they both were Macon City Council members in the late 1980s and early ‘90s.

“He’s always pushing and encouraging people to take a positive look at Macon-Bibb,” Lucas said.

One of the criticisms some colleagues have lobbed at Reichert has been the level of input that others have in the decision-making process. Reichert has said his role as mayor is to oversee the administrative process before bringing measures to commissioners and allowing them to set the policy. Several commissioners have said they are sometimes asked to rubber-stamp decisions without having had enough answers.

“I still think we have some kinks to work out with this new structure of government,” Schlesinger said. “I’d like to see the commission be involved in the decision-making process prior to when (resolutions) come before a commission committee or full commission for vote.”

Lucas agrees that she’d also like more commissioner involvement in issues, and she wants each area of Macon to receive the same attention as has been shown to downtown.

“I don’t think people resent or don’t want there to be progress made around downtown or Mercer (University,)” she said. “I think people want to see an excitement or push for fairer distribution of resources.”

Reichert said he understands some commissioners’ opinions about the focus on downtown, which he agrees “can’t be at the exclusion of other communities.” Reichert said he’s pleased with how commissioners decided to divvy up $9 million in bond money to be used throughout Macon-Bibb to help address blight. At first, Reichert proposed spending the bulk of the money on a few major projects instead of spreading the money out over several projects.

“I was delighted to work with them the way they wanted to divide the blight money in other areas,” he said.

Reichert reflects on past

In 2008, Reichert’s first year as mayor, he tried to annex some property into the Macon city limits. But that effort was turned down by the state legislative delegation, which instead recommended seeing if consolidation could work instead.

The prospect of consolidation dated back decades but had never garnered enough support to actually happen.

“That was a mighty big hurdle,” Reichert said. “Mine was a more incremental approach growing into (it) over years. Theirs was doing it all at one time. I was skeptical of our ability to get (consolidation) done.”

Consolidation began picking up steam, and after several more years of wrangling and negotiation it became reality in 2012 when Macon and Bibb County voters approved the measure. That new dynamic has been transformational for Macon-Bibb, Reichert said.

“We have made people believe in two and a half years that we’re all in this boat together and either going to row it in the same direction or we aren’t going anywhere,” he said.

Before consolidation, there was a “four-horse wagon” with the city of Macon, Bibb County and the industrial and water authorities, Reichert said.

Since the merger of the city and county, the Macon-Bibb County Urban Development Authority has taken a more prominent role.

“The problem was (that) before, we hitched one horse to each wheel and pulled in a different direction and wondered why the horses weren’t going anywhere,” Reichert said.

One of Reichert’s “proudest” accomplishments since becoming mayor is the evolution of downtown Macon. In the mid-2000s, many people considered downtown to be only a few blocks.

“It became very apparent in the minds of many people that downtown consisted of three streets — Mulberry, Cherry and Poplar — between Mercer law school and Terminal Station,” he said.

The growth around downtown and Mercer stems from suggestions made by consultants that led to the creation of the College Hill Alliance. Among the ideas was that Second Street would become the “spine that would connect several different centers of economic activity,” Reichert said.

That led to the Second Street Corridor, with aims to create a pedestrian friendly connection between Mercer, the central business district and beyond.

Several tax allocation districts, $8 million in special purpose local options sales tax money that has been dedicated to Second Street Corridor, and other efforts have led to downtown’s thriving, Reichert said.

Macon and Bibb County’s history is replete with leaders making decisions that have benefited the community, he said.

In the 1960s and ‘70s, that meant supporting bonds that would be used to fund the Mercer University School of Medicine and Macon State College, which later became Middle Georgia State University.

In subsequent years, the mayor said, “we fell off the tracks and we went into a lull where this great lady that we know as Macon, Georgia, tripped and stumbled to her knees.

“Now people are recognizing and realizing it and helping her up. People are all of a sudden dusting themselves off. People are beginning to say, ‘let’s fix up the neighborhood and fix up downtown.’ It is this air of optimism and enthusiasm and belief that we can do this if we work together.”

Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report.

Stanley Dunlap: 478-744-4623, @stan_telegraph

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