Macon/Bibb County: Looking Ahead
New expansions, new openings, new hires
Local rumor has it that when Johnny Morris, founder of Bass Pro Shops, came to Macon looking for a new store location he soon spotted the exit sign for Bass Road on Interstate 75 just north of the city. "That's where it's going," he reportedly declared.
The story is probably more fancy than fact, but locals are quick to point to the impending construction of the multimillion dollar store and distribution center as evidence that this central Georgia city is back on track.
And, in terms of economic development, Macon and Bibb County have certainly been making progress after the body blow delivered by one of their biggest employers - Brown & Williamson Tobacco. After merging with R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., the firm announced the closure of its 1.4 million-square-foot facility and the layoff of 2,100 workers. Locals have been scrambling to replace lost jobs before the final shutdown this summer.
Now they're focusing on new expansions and new openings. Along with the 600,000-square-foot Bass Pro Shops facility and an estimated 400 new jobs, there's a $45 million Kohl's distribution warehouse and an assortment of hiring announcements by local stalwarts like Boeing and GEICO.
"We haven't been sitting around waiting for opportunities to come to us, but we've really gotten out and worked for them," says Bibb County Commission Chairman Charlie Bishop.
In fact, Macon/Bibb was already seeking to diversify its employment base before B&W said goodbye. Local development folks took heed a few years ago when a consultant brought in by Georgia Power told them the area's location and workforce made it particularly strong in areas other than cigarette making.
"They came and looked at Macon and we were able to leverage that process to retool and redirect our economic development activities," says Chip Cherry, Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce president and chairman of the Macon Economic Development Commission.
These efforts were directed at three areas in which Macon's location and workforce made it particularly competitive. These included aerospace assembly, manufacturing, maintenance and repair; high end back office services; and warehouse distribution and logistics.
"We had all this stuff that we were working on before the Brown & Williamson announcement," Cherry adds. "That announcement didn't so much modify where we're going because we had a well founded plan."
In particular, the Bass Pro Shops development promises a particularly large boost for the economy. The area along Bass Road has already undergone a growth spurt with a variety of new residential and retail moving to the north Bibb location. As the store and warehouse facility are built, local leaders say the site will include more than 400,000 square feet of retail, restaurants, hotel and apartments. All told, the project is expected to generate upwards of $80 million in real and personal property taxes and as many as 1,000 new jobs.
All that will go a long way toward making up for the recent and impending job cuts at B&W, says Macon Mayor Jack Ellis.
"We're changing the mix," he says. "I think if you look at the sheer job numbers when it's all said and done we are probably on an even par. That's not to say that a lot of the jobs are paying the same money that people at Brown & Williamson made, but if we get enough of the small ones that will equal the big ones."
Many jobs are coming as a result of Macon's location and transportation network. Interstate 75 links the city to Atlanta and Florida, while I-16 crosses over to Savannah and its world-class seaport. That makes the area a logical choice for warehouse and distribution centers such as Kohl's and Bass Pro.
Being close to Robins Air Force Base in Houston County doesn't hurt when it comes to fostering an aeronautical industry. The facility gained new personnel and operations as the Pentagon has closed other bases. Good thing, since an estimated 2,200 people from Macon/Bibb work at Robins.
'"With the base we have one of the largest airplane repair and overhaul centers in the country, and that means a lot of skilled people in those areas," Ellis observes.
In all there are more than 30,000 of them - including workers at Macon's Boeing plant, which builds the C-17 Globemaster III airlifter. The city's Middle Georgia Regional Airport also is a prime location for this industry. At the small airport south of the city, TIMCO Aviation Services, Inc., one of the largest independent commercial jet maintenance, repair, modification, overhaul and aircraft storage service providers in the United States, handles work for America West. Former Delta subsidiary, Atlantic Southeast Airlines, recently sold to SkyWest, also has a major operation at the airport.
These accomplishments provide a nice counterbalance to some of the recent political wrangling that resulted, among other things, in the departure of a finance director - under pressure from the city council - and a failed recall effort directed at Ellis.
The city could also use some infusions of tax revenues from new development to replenish its treasury. With its reserves reportedly empty, Macon is faced with a wide variety of expenses including Federal Aviation Administration-mandated upgrades to Middle Georgia Regional Airport.
Citing the city's shaky finances, the council shot down a proposal by Ellis to pay city workers a bonus last year. In one embarrassing moment, the Bibb Commission offered to cover the cost of hanging Christmas lights downtown. In past years, the city footed the entire bill.
Ellis is doing his best to ignore distractions while pressing forward with development. A prime focus for his administration has been continuing revitalization of the city's historic downtown. Although there's certainly more activity here than ever before, the downtown has a long way to go to regain its former glory.
"We still have a lot of boarded up buildings as most downtowns do because people prefer to shop at malls," Ellis says. "I don't think we will ever be the kind of downtown we once were before the proliferation of malls."
A key is enticing out-of-towners to Macon for conventions and meetings. To do that the city will have to build a new hotel close to its modern, but money-losing convention center.
"Our board's research indicates that we've lost about $33 million worth of business because of the lack of a [hotel] connected to the Centreplex," says Janice Marshall, president and CEO of Macon-Bibb County Convention & Visitors Bureau.
The hotel effort has been stymied by conflicting plans supported by the mayor and city council. Ellis is pushing a proposal to build one across Coliseum Drive at the former Bibb Mill site. Council members favor building the hotel behind the convention center on city property. To overcome the impasse, the council voted to hire a consultant to sort out the competing plans.
Despite the conflicts, nearly everyone says Macon has some real assets. Once called "the city in a park" Macon has a downtown core that retains its historic buildings mostly intact. Maximum height codes that require new developments not be out of scale to surrounding neighbors have gone a long way toward preserving the historic city's look and feel.
While it isn't the center of commerce it once was, downtown is starting to sparkle again as local developers renovate and refurbish warehouses into loft apartments and new restaurants and businesses open their doors. The first new class A office building in more than two decades recently opened next door to the old Douglass Theatre.
Much of downtown's revitalization has been the responsibility of Newtown Macon, a nonprofit public/private development authority. The agency constructed the Ocmulgee Heritage Trail, a riverwalk that has proved a popular draw for locals and is spurring talk of a new mixed-use development called Riverside.
Pushed by local developers Clay Murphey and Jeff Jones, the project would convert a 14-acre parcel along the river that houses the city bus barn into a live/work/play development featuring retail and office space along with a hotel topped by condominiums offering a striking view of the river. Oddly enough, those proposed units would be the very first for sale in downtown.
"I think Macon wasn't ready for condos," Murphey says. "When you look at our community and where people move, the growth has been in North Macon where there was always plenty of land. Now the [baby] boomers are moving out of the big house with three kids and a big yard."
Newtown has also encouraged private and community development. For example, after purchasing the old Capitol Theatre with $175,000 from its Transitional Property Fund, it sold the facility to a community group for $125,000.
The idea was "to give them really a contribution to get their group going and interested in developing it," says Mike Ford, president and CEO of Newtown.
Once a grand vaudeville house and then a movie theater, Capitol closed in 1975. Now renovated to its former glory, it opened early this year showing movies and offering gourmet pizza served up by restaurateur Cesare Mammarella. Harking back to its opening in 1897, live performances are also on the bill.
The renovation project is one more step toward making downtown Macon a vital economic center again, says David Thompson, a local developer heading up the Capitol Theatre project.
"There are people who believe it takes one mega project to get something off like this, but I think you tackle them one at a time and that weaves the fabric for restoration," he says.
Since 2001, more than $354 million has been invested in downtown development, according to Newtown figures. Mercer University has spent more than $180 million on a variety of projects in the area. The school's students and employees are a boost to downtown living, renting many of the new apartments.
The other big growth engine has been health care, with The Medical Center of Central Georgia helping to fuel more than $84 million in new construction. The hospital itself has accounted for more than $65 million of that total and is on track to spend an additional $80 million for a new cardiovascular center.
One of the biggest roadblocks to development has been finding the dollars to build or renovate.
"Ten years ago it was extremely difficult to borrow money from the banks for downtown development," says Gene Dunwoody, Jr., a partner with Dunwoody Beeland Architects, which has renovated a dozen downtown buildings. "Because we have a really strong track record, we're starting to see the banks actually interested in supporting us on these projects, but they're still tough to do."
As more people move downtown, Mayor Ellis wants to ensure that the city doesn't become gentrified. To that end, he wants to purchase the old Park Hotel at Third and Popular Streets for renovation as a SRO (single room occupancy) to encourage a greater mix of income levels.
"We want to ensure that everyone will have the opportunity to live downtown especially those at the lower end of the economic scale," Ellis says. "We're responsible and it makes sense to provide a place downtown for the maids of the hotels or the bus boys or dishwashers working in those restaurants.