MACON, Ga. — As Georgia lawmakers revisit the prospect of legal gambling in the state, Macon-Bibb County’s mayor has already been in talks with casino owners and operators.
“Certainly not anything I’m necessarily advocating for, but if it does come to Macon, I’m going to want to know where it’s going to be at, so to have the largest impact that we would need to have,” Lester Miller told the Center for Collaborative Journalism in the October “Ask Mayor Miller” segment.
He believes Georgia lawmakers will call for a referendum to go before voters next year. The proposal will likely include four casinos and two racetracks in the state.
“There’s no secret that they’re considering Macon-Bibb County as a potential site,” Miller said.
If a casino were to go into one of the old anchor stores in the mall, there would be ample space in the parking lot to build a companion hotel, he said.
There are a lot of moving parts coming together in the Macon Mall deal, including arrangements with Central Georgia Technical College and Middle Georgia State University to provide space for film and art projects, he said.
The mayor has promised “not one additional tax penny” will go into developing the project, which will include moving county offices that are paying rent elsewhere – including agencies that rack up an annual total of about $450,000 at Terminal Station.
After next year’s governor’s race, the Board of Elections will move to the lower level of the mall near Burlington. The larger space which will save up to $400,000 being considered to expand the current location at the old Westgate Mall on Pio Nono Avenue.
Miller has other government entities he hopes to relocate to the mall, but is not yet disclosing those plans. An unnamed national chain also has expressed interest in the old O’Charley’s restaurant, he said.
What’s the deal?
Although contracts are still being finalized, Miller described how the deal is expected to work.
Hull Property Group, the company that owns Macon Mall, initially will donate about half the property to the Macon-Bibb County Urban Development Authority.
“We’ll have joint ownership of the remaining part of the property for $1 a year, with the hopes of owning the entire property, free and clear, out six years,” Miller said.
The management and fee split arrangements with Hull would allow the county to keep a lot of the property on the tax digest and generating revenue.
The mall donation is valued at about $55 million, Miller said, and is included in the $100 million investment figure quoted during the Sept. 15 announcement.
The UDA will issue bonds for the amphitheater and renovations and use rent from mall businesses to repay those bonds, Miller said.
Requests for qualifications for design-build teams have been issued for the 10,000-seat amphitheater and sky boxes that will be built on up to 18 acres on the east side of the mall – which once housed the addition of Dillard’s and Parisian anchor stores.
Companies have until noon on Oct. 28 to submit responses to be considered for the project.
Requests for proposals will follow.
'Mac Town' and pickleball
Next to the amphitheater, Miller hopes to build “Mac Town,” a restaurant plaza and bathrooms.
He’s also advocating for indoor pickleball courts in the old Belk’s department store.
“If we can make that happen, we’d probably have the largest in the nation for an indoor pickleball court, so certainly brings a lot of tax revenue in. It’s a very popular sport. It’s going to be here to stay,” Miller said.
Visit Macon’s CEO called the project “another jewel in the crown of tourism and promotion” for the county.
“We now have something that visitors crave, which is the outdoor live music scene,” Wheat stated in a news release.
American Pride Bank President John Hall said the amphitheater will bring new patrons to this part of the county.
“This will enhance the growth of new businesses and retention of existing businesses, and it will create excitement in the community as we draw on the music heritage we have here in Macon-Bibb,” Hall said.
Miller, who has been working on the mall project since before he became mayor, predicted the area would explode with development. Interest is already mounting, he said.
“We’ve had people reach out to us already wanting to buy skyboxes, want to look at VIP suites, reserving those. And we’ve had a couple of people who’ve been interested in and paying upwards of $200,000 to $250,000 for naming rights for the amphitheater,” Miller said. “So, I think we’re going to get some very good momentum out of that and we’re looking to break ground in February.”
Within an hour of the announcement, which was broadcast live on Facebook, potential offers were coming in on outparcels, Miller said.
Since then, multiple realtors representing retailers also have shown interest in neighboring shopping centers off Mercer University Drive and Bloomfield Road, he said.
“So, I think we’re going to get some sort of momentum out of that and we’re looking to break ground in February.”
Civic Journalism Senior Fellow Liz Fabian covers Macon-Bibb County government entities and can be reached at email@example.com or 478-301-2976.