MACON — City officials believe a key to revitalizing downtown Brunswick is more housing.
A trip to Macon by group of Golden Isles business leaders on Thursday helped to confirm the belief. They met with members from the Community Foundation of Central Georgia to learn more about Macon’s dramatic turnaround.
“In the past five years, more has happened downtown than in the past 50 years,” said Robbo Hatcher, moderator for the daylong conference.
Josh Rogers, president of NewTown Macon, said city officials offered incentives to lure new businesses downtown with no success. So, they began focusing on housing downtown, creating lofts on the upper stories of buildings with businesses on the ground floor and renovating vacant storefronts into apartments.
A little more than two decades ago, Rogers said downtown Macon had one restaurant, few residents and no parks or walking trails, giving people few reasons to come downtown.
“We have come a long, long way really fast,” Rogers said. “The business leaders were aggressive and willing to take risks. We have had to be tremendously creative.”
Macon officials conducted a marketing study and learned property owners had problems getting financing if they wanted to create lofts in some of their commercial buildings, so Bibb County created a program to loan money to create more living space downtown. Rogers said no one has ever defaulted on the loans.
“This has been a good tool that didn’t cost anyone,” he said. “It’s made ups much more efficient and effective without giving away the farm.”
Downtown Macon now has more than 600 rental lofts, with a growing number planned as demand continues to increase. Rogers said property values have increased an average of 10 percent a year in the city, adding to the tax base.
And with the residents have come many new businesses to meet the needs of their needs.
“The future looks brighter and brighter,” Rogers said.
Bryan Nichols, a Macon businessman who has built lofts and affordable housing downtown, said he heard a lot of skepticism when he built his first loft apartments 10 years ago.
Paul White, president and CEO of Coastal Georgia Foundation, said the trip to Macon was “incredibly important” and the trip was both informative and provocative.
“Downtown Macon used to be dark and dangerous,” White said. “Now, downtown Macon is clean, bustling. This is a great opportunity.”