Choosing contractor latest delay in planned Rosa Parks Square renovation

Funds have yet to be raised for multi-million-dollar construction project going out for bids for a third time


Liz Fabian

The Friends of Rosa Parks Square Board walked through the redesign with the architects in the summer of 2021, but a contractor has not yet been hired or the money raised for the renovation.

Four years after the Friends of Rosa Parks Square Board was created to oversee renovation and upkeep of the downtown civic square, millions of dollars have yet to be raised and no one has been hired to do the construction work. 

Since the pending redesign was birthed in the Macon Action Plan of 2015, two other downtown park projects have been completed in the Poplar Street Commons, and Cotton Avenue Plaza has undergone a major transformation.  

The cost of the Rosa Parks Square project, which would honor Parks’ memory and contributions of other local civil rights figures, won’t be fully known until a bid for the work is accepted. Before the COVID-19 pandemic drove up the cost of building materials, the estimate was about $2.5 million, but now that figure could be closer to $4 million, said Friends of Rosa Parks Square Chair Nancy Cleveland.  

Eight years ago, the Macon Action Plan suggested a major transformation for the northwest end of Poplar Street including relocating the Daughters of the Confederacy’s “Women of the South” obelisk monument, building a roundabout and enhancing Rosa Parks Square.  

Macon-Bibb County Commissioner Al Tillman, a former mayor pro tem, formulated the Friends of Rosa Parks Square board in 2019 to spur on the project and raise money. 

Tillman seemed surprised to hear the project is not much farther along in spring of 2023.

“I thought everything was in motion,” Tillman said March 20. “My understanding is everything has been in motion.” 

Former Macon-Bibb County Commissioner Bert Bivins said he grew weary watching other projects get done around the city, but Rosa Parks Square was at a standstill. 

“My thinking on it has been, that it should get done, and things they intend to get done, they get them done. And it doesn’t matter who’s involved, if they intend to get them done, they get them done. They find a way,” Bivins said recently. 

The enhancement of Poplar Street Commons is one example, Bivins said. 

Banning beer and alcohol 

In 2017, on the eve of the third annual craft beer festival in Rosa Parks Square, former mayor C. Jack Ellis and others objected to using the site for alcohol sales and consumption. A community-wide debate ensued.

“We do not want Rosa Parks Square turned into a beer garden,” Ellis said at that time. 

Commissioner Elaine Lucas led the charge to ban alcohol inside Rosa Parks Square, and Reichert called for enhancing the median of Poplar Street to accommodate beer festivals and other alcohol-related events. Poplar Street had already undergone a more than $4 million makeover in 2005 when the former “Avenue of Flags” was redesigned by landscape architect professor Walter Hood, of California. 

Six years ago, In the spirit of unity after a divisive debate over the alcohol issue, then-commissioner Larry Schlesinger said: “I would like to see the (Poplar) park put on the fast track moving forward as quickly as possible.”

Bivins disagreed.

“My thought, and what I said at the time was, ‘I’m not going to argue with you doing something on Poplar Street, but it should not be done before Rosa Parks Square,’” Bivins recalled recently. 

The county allocated $150,000 to create Poplar Street Commons for the alcohol-related events but held off on the more-detailed plans for the linear park on Poplar, Rosa Parks Square, the roundabout and enhancement of the Cotton Avenue Plaza.

Decades in the making

The Friends of Rosa Parks Square awaits the results of the pending third request for proposals to determine how much this renovation design will cost. (Special to the CCJ)

Atlanta’s HGOR architectural firm developed the original 2015 plan to enhance the park as dictated by public input through the Macon Action Plan, but plans for a “civic square” are nearly as old as the Urban Development Authority itself.

“The notion of having a park in that space goes back to 1978 with a plan that the UDA did early in its existence to create a civic plaza. Then the first bit of it was acquired when they redid Poplar Street and that intersection,” said UDA Executive Director Alex Morrison, who also is an original member of the Rosa Parks Square Board.  

The Macon City Council established Rosa Parks Square in 2005 after Mayor Ellis attended Parks’ funeral the year before. Ellis spoke to her family, who gave permission to dedicate the park across from City Hall in her honor. 

In 2009, then-mayor Robert Reichert wanted to expand the park into a “legacy-type” development with visions of a terraced lawn, multiple rows of trees, a reflecting pool and a waterfall. Reichert began negotiating with the owner of the former Al Sihah Temple’s Shrine building across from City Hall to exchange parking lots to enlarge the greenspace next to the City Auditorium.

A life-size statue of Rosa Parks is part of the design for a renovated city commons greenspace across from Macon-Bibb County City Hall.

In 2013, that land was added to the park, shrubs were planted and a granite marker was installed at the corner of First and Poplar streets. The renovations were completed in time for the 58th anniversary of Parks’ arrest for failing to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama. Still, there was talk of doing more including a statue of Rosa Parks. 

“That really is going to come later,” Reichert said at the time, citing the expense of commissioning a life-size bronze monument. 

A decade later, the statue is still part of the plan, but the county does not appear any closer to having the funds set aside. 

In June of 2021, the Community Foundation of Central Georgia  awarded a Downtown Challenge Grant of  $43,600 to offset the nearly $131,000 needed for HGOR to draw up the engineering and design plans needed for the Rosa Parks Square project bidding process.

The Women of the South monument was relocated from Poplar Street to Whittle Park at Rose Hill Cemetery in June of 2022.

Last summer, the Community Foundation raised private funds to relocate that Poplar Street women’s monument and the Confederate soldier memorial that was once on Cotton Avenue near Second Street. The monuments were moved to Whittle Park near Rose Hill Cemetery before Cotton Avenue plaza was completely renovated last year.

Commissioner Virgil Watkins’ 2020 resolution that authorized the moving of the monuments  stated that once funds have been raised, the Poplar roundabout and Rosa Parks Square redesign will be built. 

However, Morrison says the roundabout project is on the “back burner.”

“I think there is some confusion that those things were ordinal and they were really just three projects that got tied together in a plan,” Morrison said. 

Since the women’s monument is no longer there, Morrison wonders whether a roundabout is necessary. Mayor Lester Miller is not a fan of having a roundabout adjacent to City Hall and the park.

“I think it detracts from the area,” Miller said, during a recent taping of “Ask Mayor Miller.” “I think the park, itself, needs to be the focal point.”

Board discussion led to bid cancellation

The first request for proposals for the Rosa Parks Square portion of the project went out to bid last November, but the lone bid that came in before the Jan.12 deadline did not meet the specified requirements, according to Macon-Bibb County’s procurement department. 

Another request went out Jan. 23 and was due Feb. 23. The county’s new Director of Procurement Laura Hardwick stated in a March 14 email that the bids were “under evaluation.” Days later, the request was canceled without explanation on the county’s website.

Mayor Miller said a third bid is expected. The second bid process was canceled due to a premature public discussion of the submitted bids before the procurement committee had a chance to review, he said.

“I think people were getting excited about having the prospect of having the work done and started talking a little bit too much publicly before it had gone through a committee and made a decision,” Miller said. 

This granite marker was added to Rosa Parks Square in 2013.

During the March meeting of the Friends of Rosa Parks Square Board, Cleveland reported only two companies had submitted bids in the latest round – Warren Associates in Macon and an unnamed Black-owned business from Atlanta that “did not follow protocol,” Cleveland told the committee, leaving the local company the only viable bid. 

“We don’t technically have the grounds to tell them ‘no,’” Cleveland said, of Warren Associates’ proposal. 

Vice Chair George Muhammad suggested a third request for proposals.

“With a park like this in Rosa Parks’ name, I really think it’s important that equity is in place,” Muhammad said. 

Under Macon-Bibb County law, the lowest bidder is to be selected in most cases, but preference is given to a local company that is within five percent of a non-local business’ low bid, according to county code. 

Bids are evaluated on a scale with a maximum of 100 points, with 20 percent allotted based on whether it’s a disadvantaged business enterprise or a business that subcontracts with companies in that category. 

The front page of the Rosa Parks Square request for proposal states that minority, women-owned and other disadvantaged business enterprises are encouraged to participate. 

Muhammad suggested a procurement representative come to the April board meeting to “understand what we’re trying to accomplish.”

“It’s not being done properly. It’s not,” Muhammad said of the bid process. 

However, the ultimate decision about hiring a contractor does not rest with the board. 

“They’re just an advisory board that gives their input,” Miller said. “Not that they’re not important, but they can’t make the final decision. It’s always going to be the commission and the mayor who are elected to serve the people and are held accountable.” 

Finding the funds 

Rosa Parks Square is currently home to a number of historical and memorial markers. The Friends of Rosa Parks Square is charged with raising money for a multi-million dollar renovation. (Liz Fabian)

Beyond advising the county on the project, the Friends of Rosa Parks Square is charged with soliciting and accepting gifts, grants and donations to fund construction. 

The Urban Development Authority contributed $900,000 secured by providing bonds for the Hotel 45 project, but millions more must be raised. 

Cleveland said it has been difficult to plan fundraisers because, prior to last year, the board had no money allocated to spend on hosting events. 

The county allocated $5,000 for expenses to the Friends of Rosa Parks Square Board in the last budget cycle. 

About $250 of that funded the board’s belated holiday lunch at Hotel 45 in February, and about $2,500 paid for expenses related to February’s re-enactment of Parks’ bus incident.

At the board’s last two meetings, budget discussions dominated the conversation about how half of the year’s budgeted money was spent on the Feb. 4 event, which was not a fundraiser.

New protocols are in place to better budget and approve expenses before they are incurred. 

“If we don’t spend $2,500 well, we’re not going to get $4 million,” Cleveland said.

She told the board that going forward, all events should be geared toward raising money for the park. 

Before this year, the board was concentrating on raising public awareness of the park, Cleveland said. 

“We just started doing event programming in the park because the park was underutilized,” she said. “This year, we were hoping to go ahead, now that people are familiar with the events and make sure that we get a percentage if there is an entry fee to hopefully fund raise.”

An actual fundraiser, like a luncheon in the park or something else, is also being discussed, Cleveland said. 

Once the board fills its two current vacancies, a strategic planning retreat will be scheduled to develop fundraising ideas. 

“We need to get some movement on it,” Tillman said. “With the (American Rescue Plan) money, we have the funding.”

Cleveland also hopes to take advantage of the expertise of county grant writers to identify funds that might be available to help fund construction.

Morrison says the county can’t yet apply for grant funds through federal programs such as the 2021 Infrastructure Investment Jobs Act because they won’t know how much it will cost for the renovations until a contractor is chosen. 

“We have to have a price tag. We have an estimate which isn’t good enough,” Morrison said. “So that’s kind of why we’ve been going through this process of getting the bid set and getting a contractor on board to let us know what it is really going to cost and at that point, it’s really shovel ready.”

If all the funds are not initially available, the project could be built in phases, which has been the plan all along. The first step would be to put in the underground infrastructure for lights, a fountain and stormwater drainage – work that will only set the stage for the new layout.

It takes a ‘community effort’

Although the Community Foundation set up a Rosa Parks Square fund solicitation on their website in 2021, less than $1,000 has been raised, according to the last report to the committee. 

“So, people can go donate seven days a week, 24/7, once they access that page,” said Cleveland, who has personally made a monetary donation to the cause in recent years.

Having a non-profit collecting the money should reassure people it will be spent as intended, she said. 

The board recently discussed posting a sign in the park with a QR code leading to the online donation site, but no fundraisers have been scheduled. 

Cleveland said she believes it is unusual for a county committee to be charged with fundraising, but last year, Macon-Bibb’s Bicentennial Committee set a fundraising goal for itself to raise $2 million to fund celebrations throughout this year. The two dozen Bicentennial Committee members already have pledges for a significant portion of that amount.

Cleveland is hoping that the Bicentennial committee might make a donation to the park fund after recently installing 3-D mapping projectors for Bicentennial films to be shown this year on the outer walls of the City Auditorium. 

Raising the money for Rosa Parks Square will take a community effort, she said. 

“It’s really going to require help and people leaning in, and asking for the support of everyone around us to figure that next part out,” Cleveland said. “I think it’s something that people will be interested in… to know that they can contribute to creating the space downtown.”

Civic Journalism Senior Fellow Liz Fabian covers Macon-Bibb County government entities and can be reached at [email protected] or 478-301-2976.