Downtown alcohol law change; SPLOST funds save historic rec center, build south Macon park

The+100-year-old+Train+Recreation+Center+will+need+close+to+%241+million+to+stabilize+the+building+apart+from+any+renovation+cost+estimates.

Liz Fabian

The 100-year-old Train Recreation Center will need close to $1 million to stabilize the building apart from any renovation cost estimates.

Strolling downtown with a cocktail in hand is no longer limited to Friday nights.

Tuesday night, the Macon-Bibb County Commission temporarily relaxed liquor laws and approved funding to save a historic downtown building and fund a new park in south Macon.

As businesses endure hardships due to COVID-19, NewTown Macon requested the so-called “First Friday” law be expanded to allow open containers of alcohol from 4 p.m. – 10 p.m. every night through the end of the year.

Drinks have to be purchased in designated cups from participating establishments and adult beverage consumers must wear a specific wristband while on the streets, alleys or in public parks.

The proposal includes all public spaces within the boundaries of First, Walnut, Fifth and Poplar streets and portions of Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. from Fifth to Poplar streets.

Not only was Commissioner Valerie Wynn opposed to the idea, she took issue with the standard language in the resolution that it is “necessary and proper to promote or protect the safety, health, peace, security, and general welfare of Macon-Bibb County and its inhabitants.

“You cannot tell me that advocating additional drinking in our streets protects and promotes the safety, health, peace, security, and welfare of Macon Bibb County and its inhabitants,” Wynn said, noting added risks due to the coronavirus.

Wynn successfully led the charge to remove that paragraph from the resolution, but still did not support the change.

“Who’s going to enforce that? Listen guys, I’m not a teetotaler. I’d love to have a nice brew with a burger down at the Rookery with some battered fries any day,” she said. “I think it’s COVID non-friendly because when you drink you can’t wear a mask. You’re going to gather, you’re going to have parties.”

Commissioner Mallory Jones also raised objections.

“I just think it’s going to cause problems,” Jones said. “I want everybody to be able to survive down there but I don’t see it seven days a week, especially on Sunday. I think you’re going to have a hard time with enforcement. You’re going to encourage activities you don’t want.”

Macon-Bibb County commissioners allow alcohol consumption on the streets of downtown every night, not just Fridays. (Liz Fabian)

Mayor Robert Reichert told commissioners that NewTown Macon will be overseeing the new policy and its CEO indicated that if problems arise, they will shut it down.

Mayor pro tem Al Tillman enthusiastically supported the resolution by noting that other cities thrive with similar policies. He cited Greenville, S.C., Tallahassee and Savannah as examples.

“This supports the health of entrepreneurship and those business owners that are suffering,” Tillman said. “It’s time for us to get on board and let’s help our businesses any way we can.”

The measure passed with commissioners Bert Bivins, Wynn and Jones voting against it.

SPLOST blight funds save Train building

Although Commissioner Elaine Lucas initially had reservations about spending money on the Robert S. Train Memorial Recreation Center, the commission is moving ahead with restoring the dilapidated building at the corner of Oglethorpe and First streets.

“I’m going to support this because I do think it’s one of those historic structures that needs to be saved and we did a tour over there one morning and the building has a lot of potential. It really does need to be saved,” Lucas said.

Reichert pointed out that since the University of Georgia extension office wants to move into the building, it will save about $50,000 currently spent renting inadequate space on the other end of First Street.

Commissioners voted to allocate $888,218.76 from 2018 SPLOST blight funds to pay Piedmont Construction for Phase I of the project, which would stabilize the building and renovate the exterior.

An estimated $500,000 also will be needed for the interior, but Reichert will be trying to secure that money from philanthropic organizations, he said.

Historic Macon Foundation listed the 100-year-old building on its Fading Five list of endangered properties in 2016 and chided the county for not taking care of its own properties as leaders claim to make blight a priority.

Wynn, who previously said she couldn’t support turning the building into a “Taj Mahal” for the extension office, voted against the renovation along with Commissioner Virgil Watkins, who sought those blight funds for grass cutting and other residential blight remediation.

Lucas voted for saving the building but not before imploring her lame duck colleagues to take a hard look at other projects commissioners have approved but remain on the back burner.

“I sure do hope we finish up all those things we dedicated funds and support to,” she said. “Rosa Parks Square is one of those things I want to make sure is cemented with a revenue stream.”

The mayor’s $5 million three-prong plan to revise Cotton Avenue Plaza, build a roundabout at Government Center and improve Rosa Parks Square did get a financial boost in Tuesday’s meeting.

Although Reichert also is looking for private funds for those projects which  include moving Confederate monuments, commissioners shifted $200,000 to the parks from SPLOST funds earmarked for storm water improvements for the currently stalled Central City Commons project.

That measure passed by a tight 5-4 margin with commissioners Jones, Joe Allen, Scotty Shepherd and Wynn voting against it.

“The whole thing is a $5 million waste of taxpayers’ money,” Jones said. “We can hire 100 public safety employees.”

South Macon SMART park funded

The vision of the late Frankie Everett Lewis is coming into focus as commissioners approved $760,500 to create a new park at 834 Lynmore Avenue off Houston Avenue.

“Frankie had the vision of creating a park in a neighborhood where activities for children are just non-existent. Memorial Gym is a good hike from there,” Commissioner Larry Schlesinger said. “This is one of the most depressed neighborhoods in Macon-Bibb County and her vision was to at least give the children of the neighborhood a place they could go and play and socialize in a non-COVID-19 era.”

Stafford Builders and Consultants won the bid to build the park with 2018 SPLOST funds dedicated to culture and recreation.

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Plans call for two basketball courts, walking trails, benches, a barbeque pit and playgrounds.

In 2015, Lewis and her son, Antonio Lewis-Ross, organized South Macon Arts Revitalization Technology, or SMART, in hopes of building a neighborhood park.

Lewis, who served as a social worker and community leader for over 30 years in Macon-Bibb County, died last summer at age 72.

Commissioners voted last fall to name the park in her honor.

Mask mandate pending

Commissioners also expect to approve another mask mandate next week after Gov. Brian Kemp made legal provisions for municipalities to require masks if they are over a certain threshold in COVID-19 cases.

Reichert, who vetoed the commission’s prior mask mandate over concerns of enforcement and the governor’s prior prohibition, now supports requiring masks.

Next week, the measure will be debated in committee Tuesday morning and will likely pass in a special called meeting that afternoon to approve the spending plan for CARES funding.

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