Opinion Columns & Blogs

Why isn’t Macon-Bibb growing?

With school out for the summer, many students arrived home clutching a summer reading list. My youngest daughter came in announcing that she needed a copy of “The Sixth Extinction.” It sounds interesting, so I think I’ll read it, too.

I’ve often wondered why we don’t regularly provide summer reading lists for parents and other adults. Perhaps I should work up such a program and maybe get it endorsed by the local school systems. In this era of political turmoil, I’m thinking that economics or civics might be good topics.

Earlier this month I spotted an interesting article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Briefly, the piece pointed out that Georgia is experiencing large amounts of growth, but that most of it is bypassing the 124 counties classified as rural; instead it is going to metro Atlanta or to one of 12 “hub cities.”

That would appear to be good news for Macon, a place sufficiently large to appear on both the world map on my wall and the large Replogle globe on my desk. We should be achieving great things, given our location on three interstate highways, our proximity to the deep-water port of Savannah, the various rail lines that meet in Macon, our under-used airport and our location cheek-to-jowl with the massive growth engine of metro Atlanta.

Macon also boasts a highly impressive array of quality of life assets: multiple orchestras, museums, and several live theaters, one of which shows Broadway touring productions. There are also several colleges and universities, an excellent library system and superb year-round recreational opportunities.

Given our extraordinary virtues, I was more than a little surprised when I sat down with the April “Georgia Trend” magazine to compare how Macon-Bibb is faring in comparison with our state-level competitors in the 2011-2017 growth statistics. In the Metro Atlanta region every single county is credited with an increase. In the Columbus area, Muscogee seems to be doing nicely. Similarly there’s growth in Richmond, Chatham and Clark counties. We seem to be the only major county to be losing residents. What could we be doing wrong? Perhaps our reading program can shed some light.

Here are the books that I’ve selected. Some are pithy but a bit dated; others are quite modern. One of the books is by Lillian Smith and dates from the Civil Rights Era. Smith is also the author of “Memory of a Large Christmas,” one of my all-time holiday favorites. Others on my list of historical interest are “Ashes for Breakfast” and Grace Bryan Holmes’ “Time to Reconcile: The Odyssey of a Southern Baptist.” A more recent choice is the controversial “Between the World and Me,” Ta-Nehisi Coates’ letter to his son based on the famous poem by Richard Wright. Rev. Jim Wallis’ book, “America’s Original Sin,” was used here during the recent Beloved Community Symposium. Earlier I mentioned Lillian Smith: “Now is the time” is a bit incendiary, but it’s as close as we may come to receiving a “do-over.”

At summer’s end, some of the local clergy could put together a discussion group to thrash out the messages from the various authors to see if there are lessons to be gleaned.

I recall some years ago, when I served on the Macon 2000 Taskforce and the Chamber of Commerce Education Committee, that we were told that people looking to relocate to Macon with its fabulous cultural offerings were often put off by well-meaning persons who informed the prospective newcomers that they would need to come up with tuition for one of Macon’s numerous private schools or, it was whispered, move to a contiguous county. As the father of four, all of whom attend or have attended Bibb schools, I don’t agree with this assessment, but I know that many feel differently, so I do wonder if prospective residents are still hearing these heretical warnings.

If so, what do we need to do? Certainly, in spite of our virtues, a declining population cannot be declared sustainable. We face some hard decisions. When I purchase my next world map, I can’t help but wonder if Warner Robins will have replaced Macon as the major city in the center of our growing state. What a price to pay.

Larry Fennelly is an arts columnist for The Telegraph. He can be reached at larryfennelly@avantguild.com