Rosa Parks Square gets boost in $23 million Macon-Bibb hotel bond deal


Liz Fabian

Macon-Bibb County commissioners agree to back $23 million in bonds for a new Marriott Tribute hotel after funding could not be secured due to the effect of COVID-19 on the hospitality industry.

The COVID-19 pandemic nearly killed plans for Macon-Bibb County’s first boutique hotel, but a recently signed bond agreement should save the project and also help fund pending improvements to Rosa Parks Square.

Mayor Robert Reichert and county commissioners agreed last week to back $23 million dollars in bonds through an agreement with the Urban Development Authority and hotel developers.

About 48 hours before Integrity Development Partners and Mainsail were about to close the loan to fund a 94-room Marriott Tribute hotel, lenders balked due to the coronavirus’ devastating effect on the hospitality industry, Reichert said.

The towering 11-story former Willie C. Hill annex building that is being converted to lodging and restaurants, remains an empty shell at the corner of First and Cherry streets. Once the bond deal is finalized, contractors can resume work later this year.

Commissioners had already earmarked $900,000 from the sale of the skyscraper to the Friends of Rosa Parks Square. That board is working to renovate the green space between the Government Center and City Auditorium which also is undergoing a $10 million renovation.

The inter-government agreement between UDA and Macon-Bibb will free up that $900,000 much sooner than anticipated. The money should be available when the bond deal closes in mid-September.

“Getting the hotel deal done with the money approved was a huge victory for this board, for downtown,” said UDA executive director Alex Morrison, who also is a member of the Friends of Rosa Parks Square Board. “No matter what, if Rosa Parks Square was moving forward in any real way, with a vacant husk of a building overlooking it, would be a negative thing.”

The Friends of Rosa Parks Square Board also is working to raise money for the park enhancements. (Special to the CCJ)

A few years ago, a design was approved for the park that includes a statue of the civil rights icon who fought bus segregation in Montgomery, Ala., but the board is still discussing what tributes to local civil rights leaders will be included and whether tweaks in the design are necessary.

Former mayor C. Jack Ellis is adamant that war memorials honoring Gold Star and veterans’ families, Vietnam veterans, Sgt. Rodney Davis and Maj. Cole Hogan be moved to another location to keep the spirit of peace and love in the park that he pledged to the Rosa Parks trustees when seeking permission to name the square after Parks.

As architects, engineers and contractors are being hired for the project, board vice-chairman George Muhammad wants to ensure minority firms are favored in the selection process.

“It is a tragic irony to have a park being constructed in 2020 that does not include the leadership, the work, the highlighting of the talent of Black Americans in this project when it has this particular nature,” Muhammad told the park design subcommittee Thursday.

The Rosa Parks renovation has been lumped into Reichert’s three-part plan to revitalize public spaces downtown that includes relocating two Confederate monuments.

A judge recently granted a temporary injunction blocking the relocation for now.

A roundabout in front of Government Center and a revitalized Cotton Avenue Plaza were part of the 2015 Macon Action Plan and Morrison’s mission to build a more inclusive downtown.

“I’m excited something I’ve been working on almost 10 years now, an improved and much more dignified Rosa Parks Square is at the cusp of coming true,” Morrison told the board.

Commissioner Virgil Watkins’ support for the civil rights tributes at Rosa Parks Square persuaded him to vote for the bond deal.

“I think the $23 million for the county to fund a hotel is ridiculous but I do like the $900,000 park,” Watkins said last Tuesday while casting his vote.

“That’s the smartest thing you’ve said all night,” replied Commissioner Joe Allen, who was the only commissioner to vote against the bond deal.

The $30 million hotel renovation is expected to create 220 construction jobs and 80 permanent jobs with a total of $2 million in annual compensation, said attorney Virgil Adams, who represented Macon-Bibb County in the deal.

“The county will receive its first full-service boutique hotel in the county’s city center which removes an existing blighted structure, preserving the rich architectural history of downtown Macon and also generates a good bit of revenue,” Adams told commissioners.

A $1 million reserve fund will be in place to cover a whole year if the developers fail to make payments. The 20-year deal will allow the companies to pay off the bonds without penalty by 2027 and gives back a 2 percent credit enhancement fee from which Macon-Bibb will retain 70 percent and UDA will receive the remaining 30 percent.

“It’s a good solid deal for downtown and a great deal for the UDA,” said Chris Sheridan, board chairman of the UDA.

Morrison pointed to a Visit Macon study that determined downtown Macon could benefit from having over 500 hotel rooms to serve downtown.

“It’s not a foreign concept to us that one of the biggest needs we have in downtown to stabilize the tourism industry is a hotel,” Morrison told the UDA board before members approved the agreement at a called meeting Wednesday.

Although a new Avid hotel recently was approved for Second Street, the Central City Commons developers are at a standstill on plans for a Hyatt Place hotel on Poplar Street after struggling to secure funding in the midst of the pandemic.

“I can’t realistically tell you there’s any type of private financing for any type of hotel in the market right now,” said Miller Heath, one of the principles in the Central City Commons project.

Heath and his partner, Tim Thornton, recently came back to commissioners to ask them to consider supporting the development in phases. They initially want the county to build a parking deck behind Government Center as part of the new D.T. Walton residential complex fronting Plum Street that will include 93 apartments and ground floor retail.

Architectural designs call for lofts built along Plum Street with a proposed new county-funded parking deck to service the apartments and public employees and visitors. (Special to the CCJ)

The developers say they have secured financing for the lofts and 20,000 square feet of retail space.

The county had previously committed to funding $20 million in bonds for two parking decks – one tied to the D.T. Walton development behind Government Center and the other linked to the Hyatt.

Both decks would be the property of the Urban Development Authority which would lease spaces to the D.T. Walton residents and businesses in addition to providing parking for county workers and downtown visitors.

Heath and Thornton say about $9 million is needed to build the first parking deck and they plan to come back to the county for the second deck once Hyatt hotel financing is secure.

Since they spoke on the heels of commissioners agreeing to back financing on the Marriott Tribute hotel, the local developers let commissioners know that a similar deal for Central City Commons would allow them to proceed with the whole project.

“If you’d like to do a mortgage on the Hyatt Place, we can start right away,” Heath suggested.

Heath and Thornton will be going back to the Urban Development Authority to try to forge another agreement to find a way to begin construction on this Phase 1.

“In our recent talks with them, there wasn’t the political will to do the D.T. Walton project separately, but given the economy I thought I’d ask,” Heath said.

Contact Civic Reporting Senior Fellow Liz Fabian at 478-301-2976 or [email protected].