Residential and Commercial Growth Continues in Downtown Macon
Downtown Macon’s upswing of the past five to 10 years is continuing as new businesses open and contractors rehab historic buildings.
Main Street Macon Manager Mechel McKinley said investors, developers and potential business owners continue to be interested in downtown as a result of growth in the commercial and residential sectors. “The interest in downtown is really high,” she said. Main Street Macon hosted 20 grand openings for new businesses last year, McKinley said, and already has hosted a dozen openings this year with at least five more scheduled through August, she said.
The construction of new lofts factors into downtown’s comeback, she said, and most of the historic buildings being transformed feature lofts on the upper levels. “It’s a combination of the economy turning around slowly; people are feeling more comfortable with taking risks,” McKinley said. “People know we have 150 loft units in the mix. In many cases, some are two and three bedrooms. It’s got people excited. ... Great places for music, great places to eat, great places to shop.” Boutiques also are playing an active role in downtown’s retail sector.
Last year, Pink Chief Boutique opened at 408 Third St. A few months ago Posh opened at 314 Second St., and now construction crews are busy at 576 Mulberry St., where Tiffany Matthews is planning to open LoveJones Couture in the coming months. “Downtown Macon seemed liked a perfect fit. ... It’s in the process of bringing in new businesses,” said Matthews, who will be moving next door to pet supply store TailsSpin, which opened in September.
Bryan Nichols, of Nichols Investment Group, who owns several properties in and around downtown, said he’s in the process of adding four lofts on the upper level of 546 Poplar St. and a coffee shop on the lower level. Nichols said it’s the perfect time to be doing business in downtown Macon. “Look at what Mercer (University) is doing, Mercer football, new store openings like Posh. ... It excites me to know about all the things taking place,” said Nichols, who’s also a board member of downtown booster group NewTown Macon.
With eight home games scheduled this fall for Mercer’s return to football, downtown foot traffic likely will see a significant bump. “Mercer football will be a big thing for downtown,” McKinley said. “More people (will be) coming in ... to not only have a great experience on campus, but downtown.” Nichols said he’s never seen this much interest in downtown. “It used to be a vacant building would sit for a long time. Now there are all these offers from outside developers coming in,” he said.
More than 100 residential units are under construction downtown, and that’s just counting the nearly 70 lofts planned in the Dannenberg building and the planned lofts above the Georgia Children’s Museum, 401 Cherry St., and on Cotton Avenue. On the higher end, some units are fetching as much as $1,800 in rent a month. Nichols’ two-bedroom, 1,200-square-foot units above the planned coffee shop are going for $1,200 a month. Finding tenants isn’t much of an issue. A NewTown Macon study last year estimated that 235 residential units could be developed in downtown Macon for each of the next five years, and that number still wouldn’t keep up with the demand. The demand for housing prompted Nichols to convert the massive warehouse behind his planned coffee shop into 25 storage units for downtown residents. “I couldn’t think of any other place to do this,” Nichols said as saws buzzed in the background of the future Taste and See Coffee Shop.
Entrepreneur Nick Rizkalla also has seen downtown’s growth firsthand. He opened Roasted Café and Lounge on Second Street a couple of years ago, and the business has grown to be one of downtown’s popular eateries and music venues. “I remember when I came here in 2004. There was only one place I would go to. It’s changed a lot ... a lot is going on,” Rizkalla said, adding that business is good. “I can’t complain,” he said.
State, national officials take notice of downtown Macon’s growth The revitalization of downtown Macon is part of a trend taking place in city centers across the country, according to the National Main Street Center, a program of the Washington D.C.-based National Trust for Historic Preservation. “We have seen (significant growth) nationally in those communities (that are) very rural, or larger like Macon,” said Teresa Lynch, a program director at the center’s office in Kentucky. The roughly 1,200 cities listed as designated Main Street communities saw a total of about $55.7 billion in public and private investments during the past 30 years, Lynch said. Those investments spurred nearly 107,000 new businesses, more than 473,000 jobs and the rehabilitation of more than 236,000 buildings, she said.During the current fiscal year, McKinley said private investors pumped nearly $11.5 million into downtown Macon.
Jessica Reynolds, a coordinator with the Georgia Office of Downtown Development, said Macon’s downtown revitalization is an example throughout the state. “Macon is doing great. They put a lot of time and energy into revitalizing downtown, and you can see it,” she said. “They’re definitely setting an example around the state. Not everyone is as successful as Macon.” Reynolds said Macon does a better job than most using the National Main Street Center’s four-point approach to downtown revitalization -- organization, promotion, design and economic restructuring. “Macon is a good example of focusing on all four points,” she said. Reynolds was in Macon in April as part of the Georgia Cities Foundation’s Heart and Soul bus tour to learn about the downtown programs in Macon, Eatonton, Milledgeville, Hawkinsville, Columbus, West Point, LaGrange, Newnan and Carrollton. “I was really impressed,” Reynolds said about Macon. “We ate at Dovetail. That’s cuisine people drive into Atlanta to eat.”
Erica Stewart, a manager at the National Main Street Center’s Washington office, recalled that finding a place to eat in downtown Macon was challenging when she was here 10 years ago. She was part of a group from the National Trust for Historic Preservation that was in town to learn more about a program to rehabilitate historic homes in and around downtown. “We were there on a day trip from Atlanta, and at the time we were concerned we would not find a place to eat,” Stewart recalled. “We visited the Exchange Building, and I remember walking through all the cobwebs and the boarded-up windows.”Just like the rest of downtown, the historic Telephone Exchange Building at the corner of Second and Poplar streets has come a long way. It too has been renovated into lofts and commercial business space.