During an August 2012 event to celebrate Macon-Bibb, Georgia, joining the AARP Network of Age-Friendly Communities, Robert Reichert, then Macon City's mayor, put forward a vision for a more cohesive community that would attract opportunities, enhance quality of life, promote pride and inspire hope. Nearly three years later Reichert is seeing much of that vision come to life.
Having grown up in Macon, Reichert looks back and realizes the foresight of the original city planners. Their efforts provided the wide streets and sidewalks grid that allows for the bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly community Macon-Bibb is becoming.
A lawyer by training, Reichert served on the Macon City Council for five years and in the Georgia House of Representatives for a decade. In 2007 and again in 2011 he was elected as the mayor of Macon. Two years later, in the fall of 2013, he was elected as the first mayor of Macon-Bibb, a community created by consolidating the governments of the city of Macon and Bibb County.
Centrally located about an hour southeast of Atlanta, Macon-Bibb contains both a metropolitan area (Macon) and outlying, more rural neighborhoods throughout Bibb County. In 2012, citizens age 60 and older made up approximately 19 percent of the Macon-Bibb population (which, according to the 2010 Census, consists of about 155,500 people, 91,000 of whom are located within the Macon city limits).
1. In July 2012 the residents of the city of Macon and Bibb County voted to consolidate the two municipalities into one effective on January 1, 2014. Why was that decision made? How has it benefited the community? And how were you, as Macon’s mayor, and Samuel F. Hart, as the elected chairman of the Bibb County Commission, able to work together knowing that with the consolidation one of you would be losing your community leadership position?
Let me start with the second part. Chairman Hart and I realized it was important for our community to move into the future and to move forward together. We both knew we couldn't continue to have a divided community: city versus the county, the county’s additional taxes for fire protection, unfair taxes without accompanying services, double taxation and everything else that went with it.
We realized that if we didn't work together, our community was not going to be successful … and that was our ultimate goal. Regardless of whether one or the other or both of us lost our job in the process — because we didn't know who was going to be elected and it could have been someone completely different — we recognized the future of our community was more important.
To address the first part of the question: We sold the community on the fact that we needed to be a more effective government, a more efficient government and a more equitably financed government.
If we are in competition with other cities across the southeast and across the nation — and even around the world — to attract jobs, industry, population and tax base, we need a united front and need to work together. Also, we got to a point in this community where the fear of the unknown was outweighed by the fear of the known. We knew that what we had wasn't working and that we'd have to move into a different format.
Consolidation seemed and has proven to be the right ticket. There's a sense of optimism, encouragement and enthusiasm that's been absent in the community for decades.
2. Macon-Bibb County was the first community to join the AARP Network of Age-Friendly Communities when it launched in April 2012. What was it that made you and your colleagues believe Macon-Bibb and the AARP network would be a good fit? Also, what can residents expect to see happening over the next few years, and what is Macon-Bibb doing to ensure that age-friendly principles for people of all ages will be imbedded into the city's daily decision making and operations?
We thought it would be a mutually beneficial relationship. First and foremost, we felt membership could guide and direct us in building a community that would be friendly and attractive to people of all ages. We were already in the process trying to build a more walkable urban area and felt this would give us additional insight and benefit.
Secondly, we felt it would be beneficial to work with AARP because Macon-Bibb already had strong initiatives in the works that could be fine-tuned to reflect some of the age-friendly goals and objectives. And perhaps most importantly, membership would be important to citizens and prospective citizens looking for a place to live and have an attractive quality of life.
We've completed our Age-Friendly Community Action Plan and are now in the implementation phase.
We're trying to work closely with AARP and the advisory committee so our physical infrastructure improvements meet the guidelines of being age-friendly. We're trying to ensure that directional signage for driving is easier to follow. We're trying to provide housing options that are attractive so whether someone is young and single or is a retired empty nester a person can find a housing option that is suitable and attractive. We're trying to create a more vibrant environment for seniors and have them feel they're a welcome part of the fabric of the community. We're trying to incorporate them into some of the leadership roles so people feel included and have input and influence over the community in which they live.
3. Macon-Bibb is in the midst of a major downtown transformation with the Second Street Corridor Project, which will provide transportation accessibility by connecting East Macon, Downtown Macon, Navicent Health and Mercer University. Please describe the project and explain why Macon-Bibb is undertaking this work and what the "before and after" will be like for residents.
Again, let me answer the second part of the question first. What it will be like for the citizens and residents is that Second Street will be an urban environment that's pedestrian friendly and offers more retail opportunities, more cultural opportunities and a better quality of life than before.
We selected Second Street because of its alignment in the community. The street runs through the heart of the downtown and connects several different centers of economic activity. As a result, the total economic impact is greater than the sum of the parts.
Second Street will become a so-called Complete Street: walkable, pedestrian friendly, bicycle friendly, retail friendly, green and sustainable. We're stringing together into a synergistic pattern several centers of economic activity that have two interstates (I-75 and I-16) at either end. For instance, the corridor contains:
- The Macon Coliseum and Convention Center
- The Government Center and the area around the Bibb County courthouse and federal courthouse
- The business center and the traditional downtown shops
- The Navicent Health medical center, which is a 550-bed tertiary level health care facility that's in the downtown area and has a children's hospital, a heart center and a cancer center
- A law enforcement center
- A connector to the student center at Mercer University
We're still in the process of trying to identify a transit component that can be central to the Second Street development. Initially we were thinking of a streetcar or a trolley that would actually run on tracks and perhaps have an overhead catenary wire system. We need something that's not only electric, so we don't have the diesel noise, fumes, odor, etc., but also serves as an attractive mode of transportation that accommodates pedestrian travel.
We've recently learned about an option called an electric bus that has a fast charge station on it so the bus can actually recharge its batteries during the 15 to 60 seconds it takes for people to get off and on at a bus stop. The overall Second Street project will be in the construction phase for years because of the private investment and new buildings that will come on line, but we hope to have the street route completed by August 2016.
4. Macon-Bibb has been very successful in securing grants and awards to support projects for its age-friendly efforts. What role did the local government and other community leaders or groups play in acquiring these funds? What recommendations could you make to communities that are seeking similar grants or want to pursue the kind of work that’s being done now in Macon-Bibb?
The awarding of grants is increasingly competitive, and communities have become more proficient in knowing how to apply for grants. But it takes a coordinated and unified effort to select the project, to select the design and to convince the funding agencies that your proposal is an appropriate thing to do.
One of the first successes we had was with the enhancements along College Street near Tattnall Square Park. The changes improved both the park and the walkability and attractiveness of the adjacent street. We had a good group of people working on that, including a very talented landscape architect.
We were fortunate enough to focus on the area with Dan Burden from the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute when AARP provided us with an Active Living Workshop. He made several suggestions, which we incorporated into the design so it's really turned out to be a very attractive project, and we're thrilled that it's now being recognized as an attractive open space project.
We're trying to look at both government grants as well as those from the private sector and philanthropic organizations, such as the Knight Foundation and the Peyton Anderson Foundation, both of which have been very generous in their support of what we're trying to do here. We've also been selected for the White House’s Strong Cities, Strong Communities initiative. Maybe we'll get to be the poster child, if you will, for a walkable urban environment that is friendly for people of all ages!
5. What do you most want people to know about Age-Friendly Macon-Bibb?
There's a connection between economic development and community development and the two go hand in hand. If you develop the community in a way that is friendly and healthy, green and sustainable, that's going to attract more people, businesses and jobs because business tends to follow people.
Where and when you have a collection of people, the next thing you know, you have shops that are trying to provide services, whether it's a little grocery store or a dry cleaner or a restaurant. That brings in more people, which brings in more businesses, so when you do the community development piece right, economic development will follow.
We have a unique opportunity, and the thing I think is so special about Macon is that we still have an historic downtown. We’re blessed that our city was originally laid out with wide streets and wide sidewalks, both of which are so necessary and instrumental in having the type of walkable environment that's so attractive to people.
In addition to the historic district, we have a number of neighborhoods in very close proximity that offer a continuum of housing options. If you want to live in a loft apartment or on the upper floors of existing downtown buildings, that housing is available. If you want to live in a more traditional apartment complex, we've got those, not only in the downtown area but in areas close by. We've got little single-family homes and small bungalow-style homes on small lots in neat neighborhoods. We've also got Victorian-era mansions, large two-story homes and, along College Street, antebellum homes. There's a continuum of housing options within very close proximity to our historic downtown.
All these things reflect what we're establishing and doing to create a successful age-friendly community.
Karen Cooper is the AARP Georgia associate state director for community outreach. | Article published 2015