To find evidence of growth in Macon and Bibb County, one has only to drive through the area on Interstate 75. Near downtown and the intersection of I-75 and I-16, a massive construction project is widening roads to prepare for ever-increasing truck traffic between Savannah and Atlanta in the years to come.
“That project is going to be a game changer for the economy of the state between the port and Atlanta,” says Yvonne Williams, president and CEO of the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce. “With the growth of the digital format, more and more freight and packaging will be part of our lifestyle. Having that mobility through the state will be tremendous for helping us meet Amazon and UPS commitments.”
The $500-million project will increase safety while reducing congestion with additional lanes, improving the experience both for locals and visitors passing through. It’s just one sign of improvement in a city with four institutions of higher education, two hospital systems, a pair of airports and cultural attractions ranging from Native American history to groundbreaking music.
As with nearly everything in life, the process of recruiting and expanding businesses changed significantly last year in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Meetings were held virtually, but still with success, says Stephen Adams, executive director of the Macon-Bibb County Industrial Authority, and the city’s strong infrastructure remained a plus through the chaos.
“We are truly an international community,” Adams says. “We’ve adapted well and we’re still seeing a strong level of activity.”
Adams is proud of the Macon Bright program, which targets industrial blight (such as vacant storefronts) through development incentives. It provides a tax freeze at current levels for up to five years on qualified properties. In one of the program’s success stories, the former Westgate Shopping Center was converted into the Middle Georgia Industrial Park.
“It’s simply a way to incentivize the private market to rehabilitate and repurpose our blighted industrial properties,” he says.
Other development is taking place around the local airport.
“Dean Baldwin Painting has started their project at the Middle Georgia Regional Airport, marking the first time in 30 years that we’re seeing new industrial development there,” Adams says.
Expected to open in April, the 165,000-square-foot aircraft painting facility is designed and built for both military and commercial aircraft. Another project will expand the airport’s runway to allow for almost any aircraft to use the facility.
The activity at Middle Georgia Regional – along with Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport less than 80 miles away – means there’s a tremendous need for airline and airport workers in the region.
Middle Georgia State University (MGSU) is filling that need with programs that train for nearly every position an airline needs, including pilots.
“We train and teach students how to run an airport,” says Ember Bishop Bentley, chief of staff and government relations officer at MGSU. “Our students learn every single part of that ecosystem.”
Not only does MGSU train top-tier airport staff, it does so at a fraction of the cost of private universities, especially for students eligible for the HOPE scholarship. The School of Aviation has operations in five Middle Georgia cities, including a satellite location at the Macon Downtown Airport, providing even more hands-on training for its students. Bentley describes the program with a simple slogan: “from the classroom to the cockpit.”
MGSU isn’t the only institution of higher ed in the region. The oldest college in the area is Mercer University, which traces its roots to 1833 and now boasts an engineering program, law school, medical school and a presence in nearly every major Georgia city. Mercer’s big news last year was the opening of Mercer Music at Capricorn. The university partnered with several development entities to put what was a historically significant recording studio back to work. The facility includes renovated sound studios, a museum, a music incubator and office space.
In addition, Mercer will soon be opening a four-year medical program in Columbus. The medical school is also opening a series of clinics in rural Georgia, serving primarily agricultural counties that are sorely lacking for healthcare.
“These are the communities that grow the food that we eat,” says Larry Brumley, Mercer’s chief of staff and senior vice president for marketing communications. “It’s really very promising.”
The school managed to hold 90% of its classes in person in the fall and thanks to safety precautions experienced almost zero transmission of the novel coronavirus throughout the semester. Brumley hopes that with vaccines becoming available the school will enjoy a more typical school year beginning this August.
And even the pandemic didn’t prevent the school from reaching a system-wide record enrollment of 9,026, up 3% from the year before.
“For a private university, Mercer has a pretty wide footprint in the state of Georgia,” Brumley says.
An example of the wide range of that footprint is the Mercer Engineering Research Center (MERC) in Warner Robins. The nonprofit institution was established in 1987 and provides engineering services to Robins Air Force Base, the largest employer in middle Georgia.
Andi Mitchell, MERC’s executive director, calls it Mercer’s “best-kept secret.” She’s been there since year one, seeing the program grow from upstart to 270-employee behemoth, operating out of a 113,000-square-foot facility. Not only do current and former Mercer students work at MERC, it provides internships to students from schools like Georgia Tech, Georgia Southern and Notre Dame.
“When they graduate, they’re ready to hit the ground running in their career,” Mitchell says.
Mitchell adds that the relationship between MERC and Robins is extremely close, describing the research center as almost an extension of the Air Force base. Its work includes everything from development of electronic warfare systems to stress analysis on planes.
“We’ve developed everything from the ground up,” she says. “It has been extremely humbling to watch the program grow.”
The Macon Chamber is also helping to train the next generation of skilled employees through its Greater Macon Works project, an interactive workforce development platform that links recruitment, skill building and career navigation in one system.
“How do you build Macon and continue to advance Macon?” Williams says. “We need to always be aspiring toward educational attainment. We’re never finished helping people upskill, make new connections to job opportunities and have dialogues about universities and postsecondary schools. We want there to be a seamless route from K-12 education to the job market.”
Macon is looking toward an even brighter future when the pandemic ends, as new leaders take roles in the community.
When COVID emerged as a worldwide threat last year, Macon could rely on two large healthcare systems in Atrium Health Navicent and Coliseum Health System.
The latter operates two hospitals in Macon, both of which sprang into action and stayed full for months with COVID patients.
Stephen Daugherty, CEO of Coliseum Health System, believes there are three elements people look for when choosing a community: strong schools, strong healthcare and cultural and recreational attractions. He believes all three are present in Macon, with Coliseum’s hospitals constantly improving the healthcare portion.
“Georgia is one of the most underserved populations as it relates to the number of physicians for the size of the population,” he says. “We’re trying to help correct that. We have a close partnership with the Mercer medical school and their students rotate through our hospitals. Medical education is really important for Middle Georgia. Not only does it strengthen healthcare, it also provides high-paying jobs to help drive revenue growth in the city.”
Indeed, Navicent and Coliseum are each among the five largest private employers in Macon and provide some of the highest-paying jobs in the region. Coliseum recently expanded both of its emergency rooms in Macon, and is looking to open a freestanding emergency department in Houston County.
Macon also has a new mayor. Robert Reichert had held the position since 2008 but was term-limited after 12 years leading the local government.
A competitive mayoral race led to the election of Lester Miller, who took office just as the calendar reached 2021. He’s got big plans for the city and county as they continue settling into a consolidated government that was established in 2014.
“I believe our best days are ahead of us in Macon,” says Miller, a lawyer with two degrees from Mercer. “We’re thinking outside the box and working toward the next century.”
His five focus areas for the city during his first term are education and workforce development, economic development, public safety, tourism, and diversity and inclusion. Miller formerly served on the county school board, and says he believes education is the key to a bright future for Macon’s employers and its residents.
“We have something for everyone here.” Miller says. “We want to make sure everyone has a seat at the table.”
Question: Where is the largest museum in the nation dedicated to educating people about the art, history and culture of African Americans located? Answer: In Macon.
Right in the heart of downtown, across from the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame and the historic Capricorn Sound Studios, sits the Tubman Museum, a 49,000-square-foot tribute and education center celebrating the African-American experience in Georgia and beyond.
“There’s so much history in this town that relates to larger American history,” says Jeff Bruce, the museum’s director of exhibitions. “There are stories about people in this community that participated in desegregation and voting rights, integration and the Vietnam War. Every big event or movement that happens in America, you can find local stories here about people who participated in those in a major way.”
Started in 1981 by Father Richard Keil, a white man from Wisconsin, and named for Harriet Tubman, who escaped enslavement in Maryland and became a conductor on the underground railroad, the museum is about much more than just its namesake.
The museum was originally located in an 8,500-square-foot building, and it took 15 years of fundraising for the much larger space to become reality in 2015.
Spread across two floors are a wide range of exhibits showcasing African American and western African art by both trained and untrained artists, Middle Georgia’s considerable music history, plus exhibits on Black inventors and local history.
“One thing you’ll find out if you spend any time here is that a lot of this community’s identity is tied up in its history of popular music,” says Bruce. “That goes back to the 1950s with Little Richard, who was born and raised here. He put Macon on the map in terms of popular music.”
One of the most impressive local exhibits is a 55-foot-long series of giant paintings depicting Black history created by Wilfred Stroud, a Macon man who worked on it from 1987 until his death in 2011.
There’s an exhibit on Tubman as well and a soaring, glass-topped atrium in the center of the museum that can be rented for events. Temporary exhibits focus on Nelson Mandela, jazz and local artwork created during the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, which was collected and donated to the museum later in the year.
Bruce says the Tubman Museum brings in visitors from as far away as England and Germany, yet some folks from Atlanta have never heard of it. About half of the museum’s visitors come from out of state, mostly via I-75.
Bruce also adds that the Tubman Museum celebrates diversity, showcasing artists and exhibits from both inside and outside the Black community and partnering with a range of groups to include all of Macon and Middle Georgia.
“We are an institution that serves the community as a whole, not just the Black community,” says Bruce. “I think we do a pretty good job of that.”