CREATIVITY IS CATCHING IN MACON'S COLLEGE HILL CORRIDOR
It's more than geography. It's a movement.
Progress. Rehabilitation. Design.
No, this isn’t an advertisement for the next big HGTV series, but perhaps the College Hill Corridor, a two square mile historic section of Macon, Georgia, should be the star of the next big renovation and revitalization series.
And this just in: the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation announced this month that it will award the Historic Macon
Foundation $3 million in a unique grant-loan combination to continue revitalizing the 32-block Beall’s Hill neighborhood. Beall’s Hill has received national recognition for attracting new homeowners to the area through the use of down payment assistant programs funded through Mercer University and tax credit opportunities made possible through Knight Foundation.
Macon, Georgia, is a beautiful historic city 90 miles south of Atlanta on I-75. Founded in 1823, the city flourished and survived the Civil War unscathed, leaving acre upon acre of antebellum architecture in beautifully laid out neighborhoods. As the city grew, more neighborhoods naturally sprang up, creating a diverse sense of architectural style, from elaborate Victorian to tiny, but functional, shotgun houses.
Years passed and neighborhoods faded. By 2007, Mercer University, once nestled in the midst of several thriving neighborhoods, was in a bubble. The surrounding neighborhoods were struggling; houses were crumbling; crime was rising. A senior capstone project by four Mercer students caught the eye of the city's mayor and Mercer's president, who created the College Hill Corridor Commission and a movement was born. Thanks to an initial grant of $2 million from Knight Foundation, the College Hill Alliance became operational in the fall of 2009.
But the best part? Those neighborhoods within the Corridor have come back to life.
THE INVESTOR: THE JOHN S. & JAMES L. KNIGHT FOUNDATION
“It wasn’t any one organization, person or institution – it’s been all of us,” says Beverly Blake, director of the Foundation’s Communities Program for Macon. Blake is quick to share credit among many contributing organizations, but the fact is that Knight Foundation has invested $12 million in College Hill through various programs including the Knight Neighborhood Challenge, leveraging another $91+ million in investment from the private and public sectors. “It’s been very rewarding, as everyday leaders have really come forth.”
Macon is one of eight Knight communities where the foundation staff is resident, each of which has been home to a newspaper owned by the Knight brothers: Miami, Philadelphia, Akron, Detroit, Charlotte, San Jose, St. Paul, and Macon. This is the smallest Knight city, but Blake says that makes it more flexible. “It allows us to try things others can’t – we can experiment,” she says. “We take the risk others can’t or won’t take – we look for innovators, risk-takers who care. Macon may be small, but we’re smart.”
She says one of the main secrets to College Hill’s success is the Knight Neighborhood Challenge. The final round of funding for these grants is about to be awarded and even more projects will appear throughout the area in the next year or so. In 2015, the College Hill Alliance office will sunset, as the many initiatives begun under its oversight are taken over by local citizens and entities to become more community-driven projects.
“That’s by design because we feel really strongly that Knight’s role is to get things started – to push innovation – get people to not worry about failing,” says Blake.
Blake credits a strong partnership between Knight and Mercer University from the very beginning as critical to the Corridor’s success, with President Underwood’s vision helping create the “college town cool” vibe that had been missing.
THE DRIVING FORCE: MERCER UNIVERSITY
Mercer University president Bill Underwood says his role in injecting new life into the area has been primarily recognizing the bright students who first envisioned the College Hill Corridor back in 2004. Underwood was also attuned to the fact that there were a lot of creative and talented Maconites with great ideas who could help drive innovation in the community, including Mercer students and faculty as well as the first volunteer Commission co-chairs and the Corridor’s first part-time employee, now president of NewTown Macon, Josh Rogers.
Mercer will always be the anchor of the College Hill Corridor, but Underwood says it was appropriate to give the community the start it needed to get off the ground. “We always had the expectation it would build momentum and continue growing, developing and thriving after the initial, crucial funding by Knight Foundation,” he says.
The University’s commitment continues as the work begun in its vicinity spreads outside the Corridor’s boundaries. “We will remain as interested in the future as we are now,” he says, “The success of the University depends on it. We can’t thrive in a decaying community. Macon’s urban core means the growth of downtown; business, entertainment, breweries, music – the beginnings of a vibrant entrepreneurship life in Macon.”
THE PRIVATE INVESTOR: JIM DAWS
When Sierra Development’s Jim Daws heard the early buzz around the College Hill Corridor, his interest was piqued. A seasoned businessman, Daws knows a good investment when he sees one, and once he was introduced to the vision of what the Corridor could be, he moved to the area during a time when no one else was investing in downtown Macon or the surrounding area. The first big risk he took on was putting up the $10 million necessary for Phase One of Mercer Lofts at Mercer Village, providing not only housing for undergraduates, but a Barnes & Noble school bookstore and several retail and restaurant facilities on the ground level. Phase One was so successful that Daws immediately started working on developing Phase Two across the street, housing not just student lofts, but Mercer’s Center for Collaborative Journalism, a teaching hospital-style environment for journalism students to learn by working side-by-side with reporters at the Macon Telegraph newspaper and Georgia Public Broadcasting, whose facilities are both housed in the Phase Two complex. The innovative format for journalism education has received media attention from all over the world, and such notables as the New York Times.
Now, Mercer Village is a thriving and exciting area where students don’t just live, but want to hang out, too. People from all over Macon come to eat at the restaurants in the retail areas of Daws’ developments, or participate in tailgating events for Mercer football, Mardi Gras parties and parades with New Orleans-style food, Christmas in the Corridor with guaranteed snow, and more exciting events year-round to keep the “college town cool” vibe rocking from New Year’s through Christmas.
Phase Three of the Mercer Lofts project went up around the corner from Mercer Village, across the street from the historic and award-winning Tattnall Square Park. Jessica Walden of the College Hill Corridor Alliance asserts that in order to complete the projects, Daws "has literally moved historic properties to other locations in the Corridor, where they have been rehabbed into beautiful, single-family housing and restored to their former glory."
Daws recently began work on Phase Four, his most ambitious project yet, located on the property which used to be the home of Wesleyan College, the world’s first college to confer degrees upon women, and the college by which the College Hill Corridor’s name was inspired. After Wesleyan moved to a new location in 1963, its former building burned and was replaced with a bustling retail area, but the hustle and bustle didn’t last. The large triangular lot was cleared to make space for The Lofts at College Hill, the biggest project yet, and has already begun to sign leases for retail in the ground level.
To date, Daws has brought around $75 million in investment into the College Hill Corridor, and the new opportunities just keep on rolling in.
THE BUZZ DRAWS INNOVATORS FROM FAR AND WIDE
Tim Regan-Porter is the creative who co-founded Paste Magazine. He and his wife Leila were set to move to Boston, where Tim had completed his final interview with Hurst to edit at Condé Nast, when Tim got the call about a groundbreaking new journalism program being planned in Macon’s College Hill Corridor. The Center for Collaborative Journalism would be a place where Mercer students learned and faculty taught alongside award winning journalists at Macon’s daily newspaper and Georgia Public Broadcasting affiliate. Even though he had always maintained “Atlanta’s too small for me,” Tim jumped at the chance to do something truly innovative and unique. The Center for Collaborative Journalism is now up and running, with the New York Times calling it, "one of the nation's boldest journalism experiments." Using Mercer’s down payment assistance program, they purchased an iconic In-Town Macon mansion and began restoring it to its original glory. Leila says, “We’ve never been busier, but we’ve never been happier – it’s this place!”
Ethiel Garlington had worked nearby in Athens before, so he was familiar with Macon, but had relocated to Knoxville, Tennessee, and had no intention of leaving. When he heard that the Historic Macon Foundation was looking for an Executive Director, he had mixed feelings. He and his wife loved Knoxville, but Garlington knew of Historic Macon’s national reputation as a leader in non-profit historic preservation, and he says he had long envied the real estate development work that the organization oversaw.
“Honestly though, I was skeptical about the quality of life in Macon,” says Garlington. “All that changed during the interview weekend in February. Over just a couple of days I was struck with the momentum and buzz happening in Macon. Everyone knows that the community is brimming with historic buildings, but I was struck by the activity happening downtown and in the residential neighborhoods near downtown.”
Garlington realized that College Hill was largely responsible for the burst of excitement happening in the neighborhoods. “If we want people to live, work, and play in the Corridor, then Historic Macon has to provide quality housing options, safe neighborhoods, and financing tools to attract these residents. It’s a symbiotic relationship that’s proven wildly successful over the past five years. The College Hill Corridor initiative exemplifies how neighborhoods and communities should convene stakeholders and make change.”
MORE THAN GEOGRAPHY
Last fall, due to Mercer Village’s success, the International Economic Development Council presented a Gold Excellence in Economic Development Award in the category of Real Estate Redevelopment & Reuse to the College Hill Alliance, recognizing their efforts to recruit and retain businesses and foster neighborhood revitalization. A Silver Award was also presented in the category of Neighborhood Development Initiatives, recognizing the partnership and dedication of the City of Macon, Mercer University and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to reinvigorate the Corridor.
More than $91 million in private and public investment after four Mercer students presented their revitalization idea as their capstone project, the College Hill Corridor is now an oasis of urban renewal and all that comes with it. Creativity is a constant with offbeat art projects, live theatre, festivals, urban hikes, a huge neighborhood Soap Box Derby, art house movies, free outdoor Second Sunday concerts, restored parks and green spaces, the city's top three house museums, art galleries, great dining, and nightlife all within walking and biking distance of thriving restored neighborhoods.
Says Beverly Blake, “It’s about creating a neighborhood in a city where people will choose to move because of the high quality of life, reasonable cost of living and a great job all in the same place. And that’s Macon, Georgia. And that’s College Hill.”
It’s more than geography, it’s a movement.
About College Hill Corridor | Creating positive change. That's at the heart of Macon, Georgia's College Hill Alliance, which aims to ignite this change within the physical, economic and social fabric of the College Hill Corridor, a two square mile area between Mercer University and Historic Macon's downtown business district, about an hour south of Atlanta. Created by an initial three-year, $2 million grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the College Hill Alliance is a grant function of Mercer University and became operational in the fall of 2009. In September 2012, the Knight Foundation awarded $2.3 million toward continuing the Alliance's work and expanding its influence to assist entrepreneurs in the area. The College Hill Alliance earned a Gold Excellence in Economic Development Award from the International Economic Development Council in 2013, recognizing the efforts to recruit and retain business and foster neighborhood revitalization. Since 2009, the College Hill Alliance has leveraged over $90 million in public and private investment in the College Hill Corridor. Learn more about this movement at CollegeHillMacon.com.