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Right Place, Right Time

Macon, Ga, is putting placemaking and smart growth at the core of a successful economic development strategy
By Steve Dwyer

The civic leaders of Macon, Ga. had a revelation recently–an "ah-ha" moment, if you will. The left turn around urban planning is poised to be a transformative factor for the city of 153,000 that sits approximately 85 miles south of Atlanta and regarded as "the Heart of Georgia."

In the past, some of Macon's elected leaders have "tended to use an approach that spreads initiatives over wider areas instead of focusing limited resources on areas of highest returns," according to Alex Morrison, Assistant Manager of Economic Development and Director of the Urban Development Authority. Morrison painted this archaic picture that was part of the city's application for Smart Growth America's "Amazing Places" forum this summer.

Photo courtesy of Flickr

Macon's new way of thinking was on display when Smart Growth America assembled in Denver for the Amazing Places forum, which is regarded as an innovative, experiential event exploring how to put placemaking and smart growth at the core of a successful economic development strategy, according to the organization.

Other cities being spotlighted at the forum include:

Columbia, S.C. (It has long benefited from its status as the state's capital, biggest city, and college hub; local leaders are building a plan to better attract and retain talent.)

Akron, Ohio (It is merging its past heritage with its new cultures. Plans are underway to activate its historic Ohio & Erie Canal trails, and new initatives engage Akron's refugee and immigrant communities.)

Charlotte, N.C. (Significant investments in public transit to serve a growing city are encouraging new walkable, connected growth in Charlotte's intown neighborhoods.)

Wichita, Kan. (After achieving success with several smaller projects, changemakers in Wichita are ready to take on placemaking on a larger scale.

From its native American history to the birthplace of great American music, Macon is ready to build on its rich heritage.

City leaders have witnessed the positive returns of a place-based approach to economic development, but those efforts have largely originated outside of government. Macon's Amazing Place leadership team of mostly elected officials wants to learn more about bringing those same strategies in-house.

The city's outdated approach–that of spreading initiatives over wider areas instead of focusing limited resources on areas of highest returns–had been focused on bringing something (companies, etc.) from outside instead of focusing on building up the community from within. Macon's leaders are bound and determined to change all that.

There's been significant positive change and growth in Macon's downtown, a historic street grid full of 19th and early 20th century architecture, multiple parks, and a network of riverfront trails.

To help guide and better coordinate this growth, the Macon-Bibb County Urban Development Authority formed the Macon Action Plan (MAP) in 2015, informed by a deep well of public input.

Photo courtesy of Flickr

The MAP is a comprehensive, community-driven placemaking plan that envisions the future of Macon's historic downtown and intown neighborhoods. Implementers of the plan have focused on supporting the city's anchors of economic development through connectivity projects and residential development, like improving walking or biking connections to the city's impressive trail network that largely follows the Ocmulgee River.

"MAP thoroughly recommended ways that we could connect that trail system to the businesses and job sector of downtown and we're actively working to make that happen," says Morrison. One inspiration for a place-based approach is the ongoing work to better connect downtown Macon with an area known as College Hill southwest of downtown, where Mercer University is located. But that connection goes two ways, and the Action Plan is also about building a surrounding community that's more attractive to local college graduates in order to encourage them to stay in Macon after they graduate.

These efforts –including creating and redeveloping parks, increasing the supply of loft apartments, investing in restaurants and new bars, supporting the local music scene, and committing to bike and pedestrian infrastructure – have led to notable increases in young professionals choosing to start their careers in Macon.

According to Smart Growth America, "there are big decisions looming on the horizon in Macon about how to invest millions in flexible tax funds, and those decisions will either help or hurt what Macon's forward-looking leaders –public and private–are trying to accomplish. Last November, voters approved a one-percent sales tax for a period of six years in order to fund greatly needed projects in five key areas: public safety, infrastructure, economic development, recreation and cultural arts, and debt retirement. To guide this funding towards concentrated efforts in placemaking with the highest returns, government authorities, non-profit organizations, Mercer, and several local philanthropies have become champions of the MAP."

Macon's leadership team hopes to avoid low-return projects from past decades like road widenings or disconnected parks and recreation centers that require cars to access.

The hope from the start was that the Ideas Forum would be able to inspire "leaders to look at enhancing place in a more profound way," said Morrison, "building on the success of talent-attraction based initiatives in downtown and College Hill and build from there, perhaps incorporating pedestrian and bicycling connectivity into more traffic and road plans and enhancing existing neighborhood parks that have been undervalued due to deferred maintenance."

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