Articles by

Beverly Blake

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    Photo: Downtown Macon by Brandon Walker on Flickr. “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”             — Jane Jacobs, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” Macon has so much that other communities don’t: beautiful architecture, wide boulevards, historic neighborhoods and buildings, as well as dogwoods, azaleas, cherry trees and stately oaks. But like so many cities and towns have experienced, commerce has dwindled over the years and several neighborhoods, including our downtown, have suffered. Not anymore. With the Downtown Challenge, a $3 million, three-year initiative, we will make downtown Macon vibrant again. The challenge, a partnership of the Community Foundation of Central Georgia, the Peyton Anderson Foundation and Knight Foundation, will fund the ideas of individuals, organizations, government and companies. Together, we will invest in ideas, large and small, to implement the recommendations of the recently released Macon Action Plan. The plan, a framework for improving our city, is rooted in the ideas of each of us who call the city home. It’s been developed over the last two years through conversations and activities where we have shared ideas for what we want our city to become and talked about the best ways for it to get there. This isn’t new territory for us. The Downtown Challenge builds on the success of the Knight Neighborhood Challenge, which from 2009 through 2014 funded over 130 ideas for the College Hill neighborhood. Not only did the Knight Neighborhood Challenge change the landscape through programming and place-based improvements, just as importantly, it changed the way we think about this place we call home.
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    Today is the final session of the “The Doable City” forum in Chicago sponsored by Knight Foundation and organized by 8-80 Cities.  I’ve been here since Monday with 24 of my great friends from the Knight communities of Columbus, Macon and Milledgeville, Ga. It’s been a rewarding two days so far—full of learning and meeting new people and making stronger Georgia connections. We’re lucky with our group of Georgia cities; they are represented by a broad array of folks who care about the future of our communities, including the mayor of Columbus, the county manager of Macon-Bibb and the head of its transit authority, and the incoming chair of the Milledgeville-Baldwin County Chamber. The nonprofit sector is well represented by leadership from Uptown Columbus, Midtown Columbus, Macon’s College Hill Alliance, Newtown Macon, Historic Macon and the Urban Development Authority. The presidents of the community foundations serving our Georgia Knight communities are here too, along with some private developers. I’m lucky to be with all these smart and caring folks.
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    Above: Tim and Leila Regan-Porter renovated a 130-year-old Queen Anne house on Bond Street in Macon, which had been converted into apartments, restoring it to a single-family residence. Photo credit: Walter Elliot.  When one thinks about historic preservationists, often what comes to mind are mature folks who are passionate about old buildings—at the extreme, being seen as a part of “hysteric preservation” and impeding progress. In Macon, nothing could be further from the truth.    At Tuesday evening’s Historic Macon Foundation annual meeting and preservation awards, we busted the perception—much like Mercer busted the bracket by beating Duke in the NCCA basketball tournament! Here, we have people of all ages concerned about preserving our history, but my biggest takeaway from the event was the number of young people attending and the winners who are young: Tim and Leila Regan-Porter, who moved to Macon a few years ago and tackled the restoration of a beautiful, but neglected, home; and Will and Carrie Robinson, who restored a home while launching their new kitchen store in historic downtown Macon. 
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    Report to the community 2014, via YouTube How do you create a neighborhood renaissance? With determination, a great framework, committed investors—and most important—people who care about the place they call home and will put their own self-interests aside for the greater good. The people of College Hill—neighbors, Mercer University, the Community Foundation of Central Georgia, Historic Macon and Macon-Bibb County government—have worked together over the past five years to revitalize the 2-square-mile area between Mercer and historic downtown Macon. We recently marked our shared success with a party that featured music, fellowship and the unveiling of the new College Hill video. We celebrated the fact that the master framework guiding the renaissance is 95 percent complete (some would say 100 percent because the other 5 percent consists of infrastructure improvements to be completed by government). We also celebrated new friendships and partnerships, our diverse and affordable neighborhoods, and mostly, being a part of something truly remarkable: bringing the urban core of Macon back to life. When we envisioned the College Hill Corridor in 2007, the overarching goal was to attract talented young people to Macon and convince them to make their lives here. They are the future of our city. Little did we know that many of those talented people were right here but hidden in plain sight. The College Hill Corridor Commission and the Knight Neighborhood Challenge helped highlight these everyday leaders, and allowed them to create the future of this place. Now we have a model to share with others, exhibiting how people of good faith, with a solid plan and the desire to improve the community—without worrying about who gets the credit—can make lasting change happen.  
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    Photo credit: Jessica Walden. On a spectacular second day of spring, over 500 of us who should have been at work—including me—sat outside in Mercer Village watching on a giant screen as the Mercer Bears defeated Duke in the NCAA tournament. What a team! What coaching! What dancing!   While everyone else thought Mercer didn’t have a chance, we knew better. We knew what vision, talent, solid planning and execution—and not caring who gets credit—can do. For, you see, five years ago the place we were sitting was two parking lots and a building that had been boarded up for almost 20 years. It’s now surrounded by restaurants, apartments and the Center for Collaborative Journalism, which houses the newsroom of our city paper The Telegraph. And on a brilliant Friday afternoon it was overflowing with excitement. Through the partnership of Mercer University, Knight Foundation, Historic Macon, the Community Foundation of Central Georgia and so many others, we have worked together for the past seven years to create the College Hill Corridor initiative and the Knight Neighborhood Challenge. Mercer Village is just one example of the change in the built environment here, complemented by meaningful revitalization of the Beall’s Hill and College Hill neighborhoods, creation of community gardens and the ongoing renaissance of our public parks. Events such as Second Sunday concerts in Washington Park and movies in Tattnall Square Park are giving us a reason to get out and get to know one another. It’s the people of Macon who have made this a new place we can be proud to call home.
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    Clinite's mural is the result of a Knight Neighborhood Challenge grant acquired by The Facade Squad, a group which aims to beautify the College Hill Corridor.  The College Hill Alliance just released its “Report to the Community,” which highlights the progress of the renaissance of the corridor connecting Mercer University with historic downtown Macon. It’s a continuing story of how an idea from four college students has changed life in 2 square miles of our city. The report details many specifics from 2012 to 2014. The work has been a productive mix of private and public commitment fueled by investments of time and money from businesses, foundations, individuals and nonprofits. It’s led to the growth of economic opportunity and renewal of the neighborhood, while filling our parks and streets with music and parades and more. It’s become a global example of community progress, receiving two awards from the International Economic Development Council last fall. But none of this could have happened without the commitment of the people of Macon. The College Hill revitalization began with four Mercer students in 2007. Their idea grew with the encouragement of Bill Underwood, Mercer’s president, and we learned that a shared vision is the catalyst for making any idea work. Throughout the years, we’ve also learned that you have to believe in your idea, and stay true to the vision. And, most importantly, you have to act. Through good times and bad, action—based upon the shared vision and guided by a comprehensive master plan—is the key to success.
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    Above: Macon, Ga. Photo credit: Flickr user Mark Stozier. Wednesday afternoon I was delighted to be a part of an announcement of a new initiative that the Knight and Peyton Anderson foundations are funding. The Macon-Bibb County Urban Development Authority will lead a master planning process for our city’s urban core. Like so many communities, Macon has many plans for revitalization of its historic downtown, but most are sitting on a shelf. This time I believe it will be different. We have had so much success with a plan, led and implemented by residents, for Macon’s College Hill Corridor. That’s our roadmap of how to do this work. We will come together—residents, business owners and operators, government and nonprofits—to embrace our shared history and architecture to create a people-centered land use plan that will reenergize our urban core. We can turn around 50 years of outmigration and disinvestment because this is a special place that offers so much to the new talent and new residents we need to attract. Our downtown is a gem. We have beautiful old buildings lining this wonderful street grid of wide boulevards. The Ocmulgee River flows by, bordered by the Ocmulgee National Monument (which we are working to have designated as a national park). Within three square miles we have remarkable and affordable housing stock, two excellent hospitals and Mercer University, with its schools of engineering, law and medicine.
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    Macon is known for our music history-but what people don’t know is that music is a part of the fabric of our lives here. From church choirs to the McDuffie Center for Strings at Mercer University, to Broadway shows, to the Macon Music Ambassadors project, we’re all about our music....
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    In the Corridor via the College Hill Alliance on YouTube Some people don’t make the connection between placemaking and economic development. They seem to believe these are two different areas in our cities. Placemaking improves the built environment and provides programming, such as concerts, to build strong neighborhoods and communities. Economic development is often viewed separately, as recruiting businesses to move their operations and employees into a community. The reality—and an approach that economic development professionals are increasingly recognizing—is that placemaking is essential to building prosperous communities. I traveled to Philadelphia this week to see Macon honored for making that connection. On Tuesday, our College Hill Alliance received two awards from the International Economic Development Council at its annual conference. A Gold Excellence in Economic Development Award honored the alliance for its work in Real Estate Redevelopment and Reuse. A Silver Award in Neighborhood Development Initiatives recognized the city of Macon, Mercer University and Knight Foundation for reinvigorating the College Hill Corridor. The alliance, based at Mercer, began with a $2 million grant from Knight Foundation to revitalize Macon’s historic neighborhoods and business districts. The work that’s been done in College Hill traces back to a report compiled in 2007 by four Mercer University students who wanted to renew connections between some of Macon’s neighborhoods and its people. Since then, a community-created master plan has driven the revitalization of College Hill, and the alliance has leveraged $78.4 million in private and public investment in the corridor. If that isn’t economic development, I don’t know what is.  
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    Knight Neighborhood Challenge - Intro Montage from Tabitha Lynne Walker - Big Hair on Vimeo. I thought I had experienced all of the creative ideas that Macon and College Hill have to offer, but when I began looking through the latest awards from the Knight Neighborhood Challenge I was pleased to be proven wrong. We began the challenge in 2009, and since that time 111 ideas have received $2.1 million to improve the College Hill Corridor. And the great ideas just keep coming. This is the first time that public art has been a focus, and there are 10 great projects on the horizon. One of the biggest includes a sculptural installation at Coleman Hill, featuring a work by artist Kathy Wright. I’m looking forward to how this project may bring more people into this space. “Greening” our streets continues to get attention, too, and the addition of a rain garden to Tattnall Square Park will surely be a lovely addition alongside the magnolia walk and the paw-paw patch. Within the last year, this historic space has already seen the addition of dozens of new trees. Improving it is an important part of the College Hill Corridor Master Plan, and the Knight Neighborhood Challenge is helping guide the transformation. We’re also going to see the addition of 40 bat houses in College Hill, which will surely enliven the neighborhood while controlling the mosquito problem that accompanies our sultry summers. That’s creative and practical!
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    Photo credit: The College Hill Alliance on Flickr This month has gotten off to a great start for Macon, Ga., and the people who believe in our shared future for this place we call home. The Telegraph recently reported on the ongoing success of the College Hill Corridor initiative and highlights the critical importance of having a master plan as our guide to revitalizating our historic urban core and connecting us to one another. We also found out last week that Macon is one of 20 Main Street communities chosen to receive a fresh coat of paint in Benjamin Moore’s Paint What Matters project.