Macon, Ga., unites to tackle blight

communities / Article

Unblight conference in Macon, Ga. Photo by Molly McWilliams Wilkins. 

With the revitalization of the College Hill Corridor, urban renewal in Macon is definitely on the upswing, but the community still struggles with a legacy of abandoned and rundown properties.

Over the past three months, Macon-Bibb County government, The Telegraph and the Mercer University Center for Collaborative Journalism have convened business leaders, neighbors, nonprofits and development experts to discuss how to fight blight in the community. For decades the community has struggled with what to do with thousands of abandoned and rundown properties.

On a recent Tuesday, dozens of people mingled over pizza, sodas and cookies to talk about moving Macon-Bibb forward. The forum was one of several follow-ups to Unblight, an “unconference” funded by Knight Foundation and hosted by the Center for Collaborative Journalism and the Sunlight Foundation in August.

“We want to look to you for ideas,” Tim Regan-Porter, director of the Center for Collaborative Journalism told the crowd. “ Ultimately the answers have to come from the community.”

The current efforts are an outgrowth of a reporting project by the Center for Collaborative Journalism, Georgia Public Broadcasting and The Telegraph titled “Macon in the Mirror,” said Sherrie Marshall, executive editor of The Telegraph.

 “In that project we talked to six or seven hundred people about what they believed worked in their community and things they thought didn’t work. … We brought back some of those residents to community forums, … and again we posed the question ‘What do we do next?’ And the answer was we should pursue blight.”

Marshall explained that the blight series uncovered many complexities in solving the problems, even when officials take property owners to court to enforce local laws.   “What’s a judge to do when he finds out that the owner of a house is in a nursing home? Or has cancer?” she asked.

Quoting a judge from a previous night’s forum, she also said “zombie foreclosures,” when a bank goes through the motions of foreclosing on a property but not completing the process and leaving ownership in the hands of homeowners who may have vacated, are a “huge problem in Bibb County.”

Later attendees at the forum divided into three groups for brainstorming sessions facilitated by staff members from the Center for Collaborative Journalism.

Suggestions ranged from holding government officials more accountable for ticketing people who violate municipal codes to organizing community cleanups.

“We need to identify initiatives and places to start working throughout the city, because East Macon is different than North Macon,” said resident Dana Kersey.

Regan-Porter said ideas that emerged from the forums would be distributed via an email list to attendees, “and you can take it from there.”

Those who attended were given small gift boxes containing trash bags, a reminder that just the simple act of picking up litter and being engaged in maintaining the appearance of the community can help make a difference.

The journalists also said they planned to remain vigilant about reporting on blight.

“We’re here to talk about what we as the news media can do to keep folks informed on an issue that has clearly touched a nerve in this community,” Marshall said.

Molly McWilliams Wilkins is a Macon-based freelance writer.

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