2023 Preview – Part 3: MWA probes, school planning, going green, new affordable housing and riverfront development plans

The Macon Newsroom has compiled 20 things to look for in 2023 in a 4-part series that will be published this week


Liz Fabian

Macon Water Authority Chairman Sam Hart began an October called meeting by sharing concerns about a report of possible board member misconduct.

11) MWA allegations of misconduct linger into new year 

The Macon Water Authority enters 2023 with a certain degree of uncertainty with the lingering outcome of two separate investigations.

In late October, MWA Chairman Sam Hart called District Attorney Anita Howard into alleged board misconduct and possible secret meetings leading up to what Hart called the “forced resignation” of Executive Joey Leverette in his tenth month on the job. 

Howard asked board members to voluntarily submit for an interview, but when only Hart and Valerie Wynn complied, she later summoned a grand jury.

Judge David Mincey stayed that grand jury investigation on Dec. 2 after legal counsel for board members Dwight Jones, Bill Howell, Anissa Jones and Frank Patterson argued the Macon Water Authority is not a county entity subject to inspection and investigation. Mincey gave the parties 20 days to submit legal briefs, but no action is expected until after the first of the year. 

Plus, as Desmond Brown resumes his District 2 post, there are unresolved allegations he violated his oath of office in late 2021. 

In January of 2022, the authority censured Brown and removed him from committees after former District Attorney David Cooke concluded Brown had a “blatant conflict of interest” in billing the authority for about $40,000 in flood damages on behalf of a client of his disaster mitigation company that he met while serving in his capacity as a board member. 

Insurance reviewers disputed the amount of the claim, which also was submitted to Macon-Bibb County but never paid. 

Brown also was jailed four days for contempt for failing to comply with a judge’s order in a 2019 civil case unrelated to his tenure with MWA in which he owes a former investment client about $150,000 from a $40,000 investment in 2011 plus 25 percent interest. 

Cooke’s probe concluded in March when Brown vacated the seat to launch an unsuccessful bid for MWA chairman. 

The authority had considered asking Gov. Brian Kemp to remove Brown from office, but no action was taken after Brown left the authority. Brown was re-elected in a runoff election by defeating Lindsay Holiday. 

Although special counsel Jeff Thompson was hired in March to advise the authority in its next steps concerning Cooke’s report, no action was taken in the unresolved insurance claim once Brown was off the board. 

January will mark the first authority meeting since Brown was re-elected and it remains to be seen if the new MWA leadership will resume the investigation or take any action. 

Brown’s civil case also is on hold since he filed for bankruptcy last spring. 

12) Bibb Schools to launch ‘#Built4Bibb’ long-range plan

The time has come to reassess priorities and set new goals for student achievement at Bibb County’s public schools.

Bibb Schools’ new 5-year strategic plan will be entitled “#Built4Bibb” and is set to launch for the 2023-2024 school year.

Incoming Bibb Schools Superintendent Dan Sims presented his vision for the district at a meet and greet in Rutland High School’s auditorium late afternoon June 21, 2022. (Jason Vorhees | The Telegraph)

When complete, the plan will be used as a sort of roadmap for the district to set goals for student achievement through 2028 including measures such as the graduation rate, the percentage of students reading on grade level and attendance. It will include actionable steps the district should take to achieve each goal.

The “#Built4Bibb” plan, named by new Superintendent Dan Sims, will take the place of the current plan implemented in 2015 by recently retired Superintendent Curtis Jones. The current plan, entitled “Victory in Progress,” was extended for two extra years but is set to expire at the end of this school year.

The district started working in November to gather public input for the plan through public meetings and an online survey. The district also plans to launch a new campaign in January called “Show Up” to encourage students and employees to be present and engaged every day.

13) County teams up with Georgia Power to save money on energy efficiency

As renovations continue at Macon Mall and the City Auditorium in 2023, Macon-Bibb County hopes to save money through a Georgia Power program designed to promote energy efficiency. 

The county is contracting with the utility company which will install efficient lighting and HVAC systems at no initial cost to taxpayers. The Urban Development Authority also plans to take advantage of this program in the construction of the amphitheater. With up to $44 million in bond financing for the whole Macon Mall renovation project, removing the energy equipment costs from the construction price tag could free up those funds for any unexpected overruns in the budget.

Urban Development Authority executive director Alex Morrision, right, eyeballs the pickle ball court plans for the old Belk store during a December tour of Macon Mall. (Liz Fabian)

“I think it’s a great asset,” UDA Executive Director Alex Morrison said. “If we’re not having to pay public cash on the energy portions of the amphitheater, that’s a net benefit to the community over time.”

One of the UDA’s attorneys, Jamie Garner, said the lease-purchase arrangement with Georgia Power typically involves a 10-year repayment schedule with the county paying a portion of the cost of the equipment on each power bill. 

“It’s like buying on time,” UDA Chair Kay Gerhardt explained. “We don’t have to pay this forever once the equipment is paid for.”

Ideally, the program could pay for itself if there is enough energy savings to cover repayment costs to Georgia Power. 

14) Housing Authority moves into north Macon, downtown

Northside Senior Village, the Macon Housing Authority’s first venture into north Macon, will have an official ribbon cutting ceremony in 2023 as groundbreaking and construction are expected on another complex off Peake Road. 

Northside’s new 72-unit complex was nearing full occupancy as the authority met in December. 

Authority Chair Pearlie Tolliver and board member Jeff Battcher plan to host a celebration by the end of January. 

“They’re such beautiful buildings there on Northside and just to remind people of the great things we’re doing with housing seniors,” Battcher said of the proposed event. 

A community garden and healthy food and nutrition classes are planned for Northside. 

The Housing Authority also is expected to move forward with Peake Point, a $12 million low-income tax credit project to build 60 apartments for seniors behind the Lowe’s on Zebulon Road. 

Construction is underway on Central City Apartments on Walnut Street near the entrance to Carolyn Crayton Park. Through a partnership with DePaul USA that oversees the Daybreak homeless facility, that work-force housing complex will include respite rooms for the recovery of sick or injured people without permanent housing. The project is expected to be complete by the end of 2023.

Authority Executive Director Mike Austin said he hopes to partner with Macon-Bibb County and Norfolk Southern Railroad to spruce up that block of Walnut Street from MLK Jr. Blvd. to Seventh Street where puddles gather in potholes under the railroad trestle. 

Work continues to renovate and refurbish Murphey, Mounts and Davis homes public housing developments that date back to the 60s.

The authority has completed the three-stage housing part of its project at Tindall Fields, near the campus of Mercer University. 

Plans for that multi-family development also include a potential commercial strip for retail, restaurants or a grocery store. 

Austin said the pandemic slowed progress on that front, but the authority still hopes to lure businesses to help complete that residential community. 

15) Renaissance on the River revisited

Developers are being screened for a multi-million-dollar, mixed-use project on Riverside Drive after the development project stalled years ago due to environmental concerns that have been resolved. (Liz Fabian)

While 2022 did not bring the anticipated groundbreaking for a major development downtown along the Ocmulgee River, a project proposal could come together in 2023.

Former Mercer University president Kirby Godsey originally proposed the $50 million, multi-use development in 2011, but plans stalled more than a decade ago due to environmental concerns posed by a former manufactured gas plant on the site. 

Barks N’ Brews dog park opened on the adjacent site last year on Urban Development Authority property that housed Rotary Park off Riverside Drive between First and Second streets.

Most recently, the site of Godsey’s proposed future development across from New Street housed the old Transit Authority garage and the county facilities management building that have both been removed.

In 2021, prospects resurrected and Godsey renewed his option on the property with the Urban Development Authority after the Georgia Environmental Protection Division determined construction was possible, as long as the ground was not disturbed below 15 feet.

Attorney Kevin Brown, who works closely with Godsey, said there have been prospects for development, but rising interest rates have cooled interest a bit in multi-family residential construction. 

Godsey, who was the founding chairman of NewTown Macon, has aspirations for a transformative project for downtown, and is carefully considering potential developers.

“He’s very particular,” Brown said. “If he is going to be associated, he really wants it to be a landmark, full mixed-use development.”

On the other side of the river, where a new Interstate 16 interchange is being built at Second Street, Macon-Bibb County Mayor Lester Miller also expects future development.

The old shopping center at 171 Emery Highway is expected to empty out in the coming year and its proximity to the interstate and downtown could make it very attractive to developers. The property most recently housed the health department which moved to Forsyth Street, Middle Georgia Regional Commission which is headed to Macon Mall and River Edge Behavioral Health Center that is expected to build a new facility off Riverside Drive.

Civic Journalism Senior Fellow Liz Fabian covers Macon-Bibb County government entities and can be reached at [email protected] or 478-302-2976. Civic Journalism Fellow Laura Corley reports on education, health and public safety and may be contacted at [email protected] or 478-301-5777.