21 things to look for in 2021 – Part 1

The+new+year+brings+new+leadership+to+Macon-Bibb+County+and+the+Bibb+County+School+Board.+

Liz Fabian

The new year brings new leadership to Macon-Bibb County and the Bibb County School Board.

The Center for Collaborative Journalism’s “4 The People” division monitors more than four dozen government commissions, boards and authorities through its Civic Reporting Senior Fellow and Civic Ambassador program. We gathered 21 items of local interest for Macon-Bibb County as we embark on 2021. This series will be published in three sections.

1.  New faces lead Macon-Bibb government

Lester Miller takes the helm of the Macon-Bibb County government as his mayoral administration begins.

Miller, who recently completed his last term on the Bibb County School Board, will become the community’s 41st mayor and the second since consolidation. He succeeds Robert A. B. Reichert, who is Macon’s longest-serving mayor with 13 years in office, including two terms prior to consolidation.

Macon-Bibb County also will have five new members of the county commission: Paul Bronson in District 2 replacing Larry Schlesinger, Seth Clark in District 5 replacing Bert Bivins, Raymond Wilder in District 6 replacing Joe Allen and Bill Howell in District 7 replacing Scotty Shepherd.

Schlesinger ran for mayor and Bivins, Allen and Shepherd did not seek re-election.

Incumbent commissioners Al Tillman, Valerie Wynn, Virgil Watkins, Mallory Jones and Elaine Lucas also will begin their new terms.

The Bibb County School Board starts the new year with four new members.

Myrtice Johnson in District 1, Kristin Hanlon in District 3, Juwan Jackson of District 4 and District 6 representative James Freeman were sworn in Dec. 17.

They join incumbents Thelma Dillard and Sundra Woodford, who were sworn in for another term, and Daryl Morton and Lisa Garrett who were not up for reelection this election cycle.

Ella Carter, Susan Sipe, Lester Miller and Bob Easter ended their terms in December.

The new board approved the 2021 calendar based on feedback received and settled on a shorter summer schedule and longer breaks during the school year. Classes resume Aug. 2.

2.  One-time safe haven for delinquent businesses

Beginning at the first of the year, the Macon-Bibb County tax commissioner will be handling all business, alcohol and privilege license requests and renewals.

Tax Commissioner Wade McCord agreed to take over those responsibilities after streamlining processes and implementing state-of-the-art software to allow online services.

“Through discussions with the Macon-Bibb County Commissioners and administration, we realized we could bring those same efficiencies, including online applications and renewals to other processes in our government and help out our business community.,” McCord said as his office began processing alcohol licenses in the fall.

The office in the old bank building at the corner of Third and Walnut streets is considered an essential service and has been providing in-person assistance during the pandemic.

In recent years the county stopped sending reminder notices and multiple businesses failed to renew their occupation or business taxes.

The county computer system failed to keep track of delinquent accounts and most businesses unintentionally omitted payment so the county is offering an amnesty for late fees and interest as long as all the past due taxes are paid.

The one-time “Business License Safe Haven” period will expire April 1.

3.  County takes over Riverside Cemetery and pursues Linwood

Macon-Bibb County is taking over Riverside Cemetery in an agreement that dissolves the corporation but retains the Riverside Conservancy.

In 1887, the private cemetery was established along the Ocmulgee River and has operated as a not-for-profit organization since the 1940’s.

More than 19,000 people are buried on the 125 acres laid out by the prestigious New York landscape architectural firm of Calvert Vaux, which also designed Central Park in the Big Apple.

In December, the county accepted all the property and has agreed to take over maintenance and upkeep of the grounds, which currently costs about $250,000 per year.

“Because there’s such expense and not a lot of profit, it’s hard to find someone to take care of it,” Senior Assistant County Attorney Michael McNeill explained to commissioners before the vote.

Commissioners also approved Mayor Reichert trying to negotiate a similar deal with the caretakers of Linwood Cemetery, which is in disrepair and needs significant clean up and restoration of graves. Negotiations are ongoing.

The county did add Linwood Cemetery to the Ocmulgee Crossings Tax Allocation District which will allow funds to be used for improvements at the African American burial ground in Pleasant Hill.

4.  Old housing units poised for upgrade as new projects break ground

As the Macon Housing Authority wraps up construction of Phase 3 of Tindall Fields and works to find retail tenants for that community bordering Mercer University, new projects will break ground in 2021.

Construction will begin on Central City Apartments, a $20 million workforce housing development in conjunction with Depaul U.S.A. to provide respite housing for the homeless clients of Daybreak.

The 82-units will be built next to the homeless day center on Walnut Street near the entrance to Carolyn Crayton Park in the central city area of downtown.

The 4-acre-tract formerly belonged to the Atlanta Gas Light Company which spent recent years cleaning up soil contamination from coal tar residue remaining from powering street lights more than a century ago.

The authority also will begin work in 2021 on its senior citizen housing complex on Northside Drive not far from Tom Hill Sr. Blvd.

An application filed with Georgia’s Department of Community Affairs seeks 4 percent Low Income Housing Tax Credits to refurbish decades-old housing units, said authority CEO Mike Austin.

The credits would help lure investors to renovate Davis Homes on the east side near the Ocmulgee Mounds National Historic Park, Murphey Homes off Eisenhower Parkway and Mounts Homes in Pleasant Hill.

Homes would be renovated with new interiors and cosmetic upgrades outside.

“We hope to learn from DCA by the end of Feb. if we get the green light on these deals,” Austin said. “If we do, it will be very exciting because these properties are over 50 years old!”

Macon-Bibb County accepted Transco’s donation of the 1910 coal chute that’s been on the Historic Macon’s Fading Five List for two years. (Liz Fabian)
The county will pay to restore and paint the steam Locomotive No. 509 currently at Carolyn Crayton Park. Mayor Robert Reichert hopes commissioners will approve moving it to the historic coal tower nearby. (Liz Fabian)

5.  Railroad relics could become tourist attractions

After two years on Historic Macon’s Fading Five list of endangered structures, the 1910 coal  chute on Seventh Street has a new owner – Macon-Bibb County.

Mayor Reichert reached out to Transco Inc. which owned the coaling tower and the company agreed donate it to the city.

As of December, the company will no longer have any liability for the structure, nor will they have to pay to have it demolished.

Historic Macon trustee Max Crook appealed to the commission in recent months to “help preserve a significant part of history we’re in danger of losing.”

“We just feel like it would be a tremendous point of interest,” Crook said.

In the waning months of his administration, Reichert envisioned creating a new historic tourist attraction by relocating an old steam locomotive to the half-acre around the tower.

For decades, the Benny A. Scott Memorial Steam Engine 509 has greeted visitors at the entrance of the old Central City Park, which was named this year for beautification pioneer and Cherry Blossom Festival Founder Carolyn Crayton.

Scott was the first African American locomotive engineer for Brosnan Yard, said his son Chico, who appealed to commissioners last January to preserve the rusting old engine.

In September, commissioners agreed to spend up to $50,000 to restore and repaint the engine.

Reichert said the tower needs the locomotive to help the public understand the historic cement structure’s purpose.

“Park the locomotive under it and ‘Bam’ everybody understands,” he said.

It remains to be seen whether the new mayor and commission will carry through.

Commissioner Valerie Wynn remembers playing on that train as a child and favored leaving it at the park, but Virgil Watkins is not opposed to moving it.

“Let’s start dealing with the rust and whatever that is that’s covering it,” Watkins said. “That tower thing sounds kind of cool.”

5.  Making more movies in Macon

Although the COVID-19 pandemic halted production of many movies and television programs in 2020, Macon-Bibb County already has some exciting announcements pending for the new year.

“There’s a film in the works for March that hasn’t contracted with the county yet,” said Aaron Buzza of Visit Macon who serves as the local liaison for the film industry. “I have a couple of really good prospects still in the scouting process, as well.”

Buzza’s potential projects include one for television and two feature films, plus Macon will be showcased in the first season of “Six Degrees with Mike Rowe,” which filmed here in 20190.

In addition, the Burke Management Firm also approached county commissioners in October about the possibility of filming Coke Daniels’ “Karen” in and around Macon. “Orange is the New Black” star Taryn Manning has been cast as the racist, entitled neighbor taunting the new African American family on the block in the movie that has a multimillion dollar distribution deal.

Macon also will be in the limelight with the Hollywood elite as the Douglass Theatre is serving as an official Sundance Film Festival satellite screen Jan. 29 – 31.

The virtual festival Jan. 28-Feb. 3 will offer online theatrical experiences, lectures, and community events.

The Cherry Blossom royal court selected for the 2020 festival will carry out their duties in 2021. (Cherry Blossom Festival)

7.  In the pink with the Cherry Blossom Festival

After the 2020 cancellation, plans are underway for the 39th International Cherry Blossom Festival to go on as planned March 18 – 28.

Tributes to Michael Jackson, The Beatles and Prince are scheduled for Carolyn Crayton Park, the former Central City Park which will be rededicated in honor of the co-founder of the festival in a ceremony expected during the first quarter of 2021.

The chairmen of the board and festival, Alex Habersham and Middle Georgia Technical College President Ivan Allen, along with the royal court chosen for the 2020 festival will carry out their duties in 2021.

Cherry Blossom Queen Alicia Ford, Princess Catie Beth Stejskal, Legacy Queen Angela Boykin will join Little Miss Khylie Wilkerson and Little Mister Walden Weatherford will serve as the festival’s ambassadors during the events.

Visit Macon reported rooms for the festival were already being booked as early as September.

“Oh, thank you, Lord,” festival CEO Stacy Moore replied. “Where are they coming from?”

“All over,” Visit Macon CEO Gary Wheat replied.

“Oh, thank you. That’s such good news,” Moore said.

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