When Macon was founded in 1823, its designers envisioned the creation of “a city in a park.” The natural beauty of the Ocmulgee River and the presence of the Indian Mounds overlooking the city highlighted the splendor of this special place, just as they had for earlier Native Americans.
Today, almost 200 years later, Middle Georgia is at a fork in the road. Decisions to be made in the near future could remake our region, its quality of life and its economic prospects for the 21st century. What kind of place will Macon be 75 years from now? The answer is not yet clear, but some of the possibilities are coming into view.
In January, U.S. Reps. Sanford Bishop and Austin Scott achieved passage of the Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park Boundary Revision Act by a vote of 396-8 in the U.S. House of Representatives, a remarkable accomplishment in a contentious Congress. The bill still awaits Senate action, but in one key provision Congress authorizes a study of the river corridor between Macon and Hawkinsville to determine options for how best to support historic preservation of Native American history and cultural sites, preserve public hunting lands and unique wildlife habitat, sustain compatible land use around Robins Air Force Base, and enhance tourism and recreation.
Local voices in Macon have proposed an answer to this question, one that would consolidate the Ocmulgee National Monument with other existing state and federal public lands along the river to establish an Ocmulgee National Park & Preserve. This week, the concept gained significant additional momentum with the release of a new economic analysis by the National Parks Conservation Association entitled “Diamond in the Rough” (www.npca.org/ocmulgeereport). The report, funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, projects that within 15 years of its creation, a National Park & Preserve could bring in over 1 million visitors per year, a more than six-fold increase over the current public lands operating separately. Such visitation growth would add $206.7 million in yearly economic activity and support over 2,800 jobs annually.
In addition, a National Park & Preserve could serve as the nexus uniting multiple local themes and assets such as the Ocmulgee Heritage Trail, the Ocmulgee River Water Trail, and a range of historic preservation efforts, amplifying their overall impact as magnets for recreation and tourism.
Currently our river and the special places that surround it are being undervalued and our local communities are paying the price. It doesn’t need to be this way and “Diamond in the Rough” lays out a blueprint for how it could be different. The conversation is just beginning, but the report gives community leaders and decision makers the hard economic numbers needed to guide the discussion.
It is time for some forward thinking about our common future. A National Park & Preserve, or some similar concept, would advance the conservation of treasured resources, bring increased economic growth and prosperity to Middle Georgia, and fulfill the vision of Macon’s founders to create a “city in a park.” The opportunity is within our grasp, if we only have the vision to embrace it.
Brian Adams is president of the Ocmulgee National Park & Preserve Initiative and a Macon-based attorney.
Ethiel Garlington is executive director of Historic Macon Foundation, a national leader in preservation and a role model for revitalization efforts throughout the country.