MACON, Ga. —
6) Will Bibb Schools enrollment continue to grow?
Bibb County Schools marked a 5-year high for enrollment with 21,392 students in October, an uptick the district welcomed but did not anticipate.
Enrollment has been declining for years in most public school districts nationwide.
The number of students at each school directly affects how much money school districts receive from state and federal education departments.
During a called budget meeting in May, before Superintendent Dan Sims started working for the district, Bibb Schools’ chief financial officer told the school board it would have to start thinking about making hard cost-cutting decisions to avoid a “cash flow crisis” in 2026. At that time, projections for fall 2022 showed no signs of improvement. However, the district enrolled 530 more students than it anticipated.
Georgia public school districts report enrollment to the Georgia Department of Education in March and October. State and federal funding for schools is based upon these biannual counts.
7) Macon Mall building boom plus Ocmulgee East Bank development
Hard hats could become a regular accessory for Macon-Bibb County leaders as the county builds a new amphitheater, indoor pickleball courts and offices at Macon Mall.
Heavy equipment was moving dirt around and relocating utilities at the amphitheater site near the old J.C. Penney store during a recent tour of the mall construction.
Mayor Lester Miller said the pre-ordered steel for the amphitheater is expected to arrive in February or March.
“Like the mayor said, once the steel comes in, that’s when we’ll go vertical and that’s when things will really feel like things are happening,” said Wes Stroud, of Piedmont Construction Group.
In mid-December, Urban Development Authority Executive Director Alex Morrison led county commissioners through the old Belk store where 32 indoor courts will make up the world’s largest indoor pickleball facility site by the end of 2023.
The higher ceilings of the upper floor of the old Belk will be sufficient for professional tournament play and acoustical tile will muffle sound, Morrison said.
“Most tournaments last two or three days,” said Mayor Miller, which magnifies the economic impact of visitors.
But the space won’t just be a “Picklemall” or exclusively a pickleball facility, Morrison said.
“It will have a lot of flexibility as an indoor sports and events facility. We are not planning to build permanent fencing for the courts, so if we needed to have a prom, you could take down the fencing and expand that facility and have a much broader space,” Morrison said.
Weddings, cornhole tournaments and other uses are being bandied about.
Architect Gene Dunwody Jr. also walked commissioners through the planned new county offices on the Bloomfield Road side of the mall, home of the old Sears and current Burlington store.
On the lower level, near the old Sears garden center, two large courtrooms and expanded jury rooms will provide post-COVID-19 distancing space and overflow from the downtown courthouse. Miller said high schools could also use the courtrooms for mock trials as students study the legal system.
The lower level mall entrance on the Mercer University Drive side will lead to the county offices of the Board of Elections, which will be in the back corner of the old Sears.
The Middle Georgia Regional Commission will be on the mall’s first floor below Ole Times County Buffet.
A large, shared community meeting space separates the board of elections and regional commission on that side of the mall.
The military recruiting offices are expected to stay in the entrance corridor off Mercer, which will also include a new library branch and a literacy office near those mall doors.
The Planning & Zoning Commission and the county’s business services department will be to the left of the entryway with doors fronting the mall corridor.
Dunwody said the space could also accommodate new businesses to service the county employees and visitors.
Construction is being financed by $44 million in revenue bonds that will be repaid through mall rent.
Macon-Bibb County also approved the purchase of $14 million worth of land on Coliseum Drive near Interstate 16.
The county had owned chunks of the old Bibb mill site, but Miller sought control of the whole former campus to entice developers of a potentially $400 million dollar multi-use development.
A new hotel, apartments, office space, retail and restaurants could serve tourists coming to the Ocmulgee Mounds, which is expected to gain national park status through a bill pending in Congress.
8) Will GDOT improve one of Macon’s deadliest roads?
Gray Highway is one of the deadliest thoroughfares for pedestrians in Macon. The Georgia Department of Transportation is studying ways to make it safer for both pedestrians and drivers, GDOT spokesperson Gina Snider told The Macon Newsroom in November.
The evaluation of infrastructure on the stretch of road between Interstate 16 and Shurling Drive is the result of recent discussions GDOT has had with Macon-Bibb County and the Macon Area Transportation Study group, Snider said.
Potential safety improvements include signal upgrades, pedestrian crosswalks and strategically placed short sections of raised median in place of turning lanes.
GDOT worked with the county on a safety audit of Gray Highway in 2016, but the recommended improvements from that study were never implemented.
In coming months, the state will conduct new engineering studies to help determine the best locations for pedestrian crossings over Gray Highway between Second Street and Shurling Drive, Snider said.
County representatives have twice met with GDOT officials for a “Safety Summit” to discuss how to improve communication. Mayor Lester Miller said he is aiming for those meetings to occur quarterly.
9) Eisenhower Business District revitalization plans
Thousands of daffodils will pop up next spring on the Interstate 475 interchange at Eisenhower Parkway with wildflowers to follow.
The flowers and beautification efforts are the work of the Eisenhower Business Improvement District, or EBID, that’s more than a year into its second six-year term.
Nearly eight years ago, a majority of businesses in the sector from I-475 to Oglesby Place agreed to pay an extra 5 mils in property taxes to fund improvements in the corridor.
In addressing the group last year, Mayor Lester Miller said one of his top goals is to revitalize that part of town and lure some of the 22 million travelers that come down I-475 each year.
Miller is hoping the new amphitheater at Macon Mall will help the Urban Development Authority lease out every available space by the end of 2023.
“I think this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to give this area a second chance and I’m excited about it,” Miller said.
Not only did Macon Mall suffer an exodus of department stores and retail outlets in recent years, so did the Eisenhower Crossing shopping center that lost its Target anchor store in 2018.
One of the newest members of the EBID board is Andy Neiswenter, whose company Neis Acquisitions now owns much of the Eisenhower Crossing Shopping Center.
Neiswenter said one of his greatest challenges in recruiting new businesses is the perception that the corridor is a high-crime area.
Although the EBID has hired private security for years, Neiswenter is donating space for a new security office on Presidential Parkway to raise awareness of the presence of patrols and the services and protection they can provide.
EBID also plans a marketing campaign next spring to better educate the public and potential new businesses about what the area has to offer.
The campaign will launch in conjunction with a groundbreaking for Middle Georgia State University’s new athletic facility at its Georgia Premier cross-country course off Fulton Mill Road that’s designed to lure more athletic tourism to Macon.
10) Will delayed 911 response times improve?
Slow emergency response times in 2022 prompted changes in oversight of the Macon-Bibb E-911 Center, but the issue hasn’t much improved.
The Macon-Bibb County government quietly relinquished control
of the entire department to the sheriff’s office in early March amid complaints about delayed responses to 911 calls.
The Macon Newsroom analysis of emergency response times to pedestrian fatalities in 2021 found that several people with life-ending injuries waited more than 20 minutes for emergency responders.
Though response times continue to be a problem, the extent and severity is unknown because there is no mechanism to determine if overall operations are sufficient.
The sheriff’s office has said it lacks the capability to determine its average response time to 911 calls and is only able to evaluate times for individual calls.
In late 2022, the sheriff’s office encouraged people with non-emergencies to submit a report via an online portal to help cut down on wait times as it works to fill deputy vacancies.
Civic Journalism Senior Fellow Liz Fabian covers Macon-Bibb County government entities and can be reached at email@example.com or 478-302-2976. Civic Journalism Fellow Laura Corley reports on education, health and public safety and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 478-301-5777.