Macon, GA is actually cool
A decade ago, downtown Macon was boring, says Justin Andrews, a Macon native and director of special projects and outreach at the Otis Redding Foundation. "It used to be empty parking spots and the same three or four restaurants."
- "Now you've got people all over the place; you can't find parking,” Andrews told Axios. “It's how a downtown should be."
What's happening: Just an hour and a half south of Atlanta, Macon — the midsize city anchoring middle Georgia — has been quietly remaking itself for decades.
Why it matters: One secret to Macon’s success has been its underestimated history and culture, a history that many in the city have leaned into, says Seth Clark, Macon’s Mayor pro tem.
- "[Revitalization] hasn't changed downtown. It just made what was there vibrant," Clark told Axios. "Downtown always had this feeling of art and music and potential, that you were part of this artistic and inclusive history that was kind of a secret. What Macon did right was embrace that. Not try to kick the stink off of it."
- "It's this wonderful fusion of what was once Macon and what is now Macon," says Andrea Cooke, a Macon native and program director of Macon Mental Health Matters.
"Macon has been about embracing the identity of what's here and not getting caught up in and trying to compete with the Atlantas and the Charlestons and the next big thing. Embracing who we are and not just stagnating in the 'good old days.'"— Seth Clark
Catch up quick: Over the past two decades, Macon's downtown has been the focus of intentional change by groups including the Historic Macon Foundation and NewTown Macon — an economic development initiative.
- Mercer University — one of the area's key employers along with Robins Air Force Base, Atrium Navicent Health and GEICO — has also been a crucial player in the revitalization through arts and cultural programming sponsorship, purchasing and operating buildings including Capricorn Studios.
- "The university's well-being is dependent in part on the well-being of the center city," Mercer's then-chancellor Kirby Godsey told the Macon Telegraph in 2006.
The big picture: Andrews said an approach to Macon’s future with an eye towards the past is also evident in the work of the family of Otis Redding through the Otis Redding Foundation. Andrews is Redding’s grandson.
- “With everything we do, from the music camps to private lessons and all these programs we have for kids, it’s all about ushering the history onto a new generation,” he told Axios. “So a new generation can learn from that generation, take what they can, and use it in the future as they go into their lives.”
The approach is also evident in the decades-long effort to expand Macon's Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park into the state's first National Park and Preserve.
- In the process, Macon is revitalizing its relationship with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation itself. They have planned a co-management model that would allow the tribe to engage as much as they want in park management and are planning for an adjacent tribally run cultural center.
- Clark, who is also the executive director of the Ocmulgee National Park & Preserve Initiative, said the legislation to formalize the new park could pass by the end of the year.
- "It's almost by nature a museum but it’s not how we're seeing that opportunity," Clark said of the new park. "We're seeing it as an opportunity to look forward."
The bottom line: It all combines, Andrea Cooke said, to be a place that’s genuinely welcoming. As a Black woman, she told Axios, "Macon has made me feel whole, and I don’t know that I've ever gone to another place where I’ve felt as seen, heard and included like I have in Macon."
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