How a University and a Foundation Turned Around a Depressed Community by Getting People to Invest Again
By Dan Grech @dgrech
College Hill's Quirky Renaissance Includes a TARDIS Lending Library and a 60-Foot Outdoor Slide.
The city of Macon is a cradle of culture and commerce in Central Georgia. Founded in 1823 as a "City Within a Park," this former textile city boasts a rich musical history, high-quality colleges and universities, wide boulevards, lush city parks and affordable, antebellum homes. Talented musicians such as Otis Redding , Little Richard and the Allman Brothers Band came up in Macon .
But larger economic forces and poor planning have battered this city of 91,000 . After World World II, Macon emptied as people moved to the suburbs. Interstate 75 was built through African-American neighborhoods in the heart of town. Jobs went to Atlanta and other big cities, or overseas, and with the jobs went Macon's most talented sons and daughters. Today, Macon ranks as one of the most dangerous cities of its size in the nation. In 2012, Macon's median household income was $23,127 , less than half of the median income in Georgia and nationwide.
Over the past seven years, Mercer University , the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the city of Macon have partnered in a demonstration project to turn around a 2-square-mile section of town known as College Hill.
College Hill , a collection of historic neighborhoods that flow between Mercer University and downtown, declined with the rest of Macon. The Pleasant Hill section of the neighborhood was taken over by weed-filled vacant lots. The Beall's Hill section turned into a den for drug dealing. The university erected a fence around the perimeter of campus and warned students not to cross any bridges or railroad tracks.
When I moved here nine years ago, I found a community that had everything going for it, but the people didn't believe in it. The first thing we had to do was create a sense of place and a sense of belonging. –Beverly Blake, Knight Foundation
In 2007, four students at Mercer University completed a senior capstone project with a revitalization plan for College Hill. "They were on fire with this idea to attract the creative class to this part of town," said their professor, Peter Brown.
Their idea caught on. Spurred by Knight Foundation, the university and the city joined with residents to forge a shared vision for College Hill that unlocked the neighborhood's rich history and quirky spirit. Blighted neighborhoods are being retaken, block by block. Nearly $100 million in private investment has poured in. Home prices have skyrocketed and spirits have soared.
It's all starting to knit together. It's multitudes of things working in concert over a sustained period of time. You can really start to see change. –Kathryn Dennis, Community Foundation of Central Georgia
Today this "hip and historic" community has a vibrant arts and music scene. The Second Sunday Concert Series in Washington Park regularly draws 2,000 people. Neighbors have planted 250 trees and installed a rain garden in Tattnall Square Park. Outdoor lending libraries have been installed throughout town, including one resembling the TARDIS from the "Dr. Who" television show. This fall, a 67-foot outdoor slide was built into Coleman Hill.
The College Hill revitalization has earned national and even international acclaim . It has become a model for how visionary private-sector leadership and innovative, public-private partnering can spark a renaissance.
The most remarkable aspect of the redevelopment of College Hill is the spirit of possibility that pervades a part of town that many gave up for a slum a decade ago. Neighbors who once were afraid to go outside now play in the renovated parks, gather at public concerts, and pitch in to keep the neighborhood clean. As the College Hill Alliance puts it, "It's more than a location; it's a grassroots movement." A part of town that was once depressed, economically and emotionally, believes in itself again .
These are the secrets of College Hill's successful turnaround. It can happen in your hometown, too.
We believe in the potential for a better, stronger, more cohesive community now more than any time in the past 100 years. –Robert Reichert, mayor of Macon-Bibb County