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Will COVID-19 kill off or boost planned downtown Macon projects?

Some projects appear to be on hold and other might not happen at all

MACON, Ga. — Editor's Note: The video in this story is from WMAZ's previous reporting on the Wyndham Hotel in Macon.

Just a few short months ago, downtown Macon was bustling with new businesses about to open and some ambitious development plans.

Now that COVID-19 has pulled out the rug from under the U.S. economy, some projects appear to be on hold and others might not happen at all.

Central City Commons – an entire city block of new development around existing buildings bordered by Poplar, First, Plum and Second streets – envisioned retail shops, lofts, lodging and office space.

Developers have yet to secure anticipated funding to get the project started.

Miller Heath III, of MMI Capital LLC, which is working with Thornton Realty on the project, said he has been talking with lenders he’s worked with in the past.

“We were moving toward financial closing and then COVID,” Heath said.

Heath and Tim Thornton began working on this proposed development more than five years ago, according to Telegraph archives. They first anticipated construction beginning in January 2016.

Last summer was another target date after the Macon-Bibb County Urban Development Authority agreed to issue $20 million in bonds for the initial phase of the project to build two parking decks. The development agreement expired last month.

At its May meeting, the UDA discussed the possibility of recovering $52,500 it invested in the engineering designs for those decks that were key to the initial phase of the proposal.

Heath remains optimistic the plans eventually will come to fruition but can’t speak about a timeline yet.

“There is interest coming back in the market,” Heath said.

Construction also appears to have halted on the old Willie C. Hill Annex building at the corner of First and Cherry streets.

A message inquiring about the project status left with Integrity Development Partners was not immediately returned.

Last year, IDP began work on the $30 million renovation to house a Marriott “Tribute Collection” 94-room hotel in the gold brick highrise that most recently housed city and county offices. The 11-story former home of the Southern Trust Company was the tallest building between Miami and New York when it was built in 1941.

Macon-Bibb County agreed to owner finance the $1 million sale price through the UDA which agreed to $900,000 being payable over nearly two decades.

County commissioners are already banking on that money to partially fund enhancements to neighboring Rosa Parks Square.

The UDA agreed to send a letter of support for that project to encourage construction financing.

UDA executive director Alex Morrison said IDP is current on its interest payments but he is disappointed on the progress.

“It’s not where we want it be,” Morrison said recently. “We’d just really love to see the project get across the finish line because, even in light of everything with coronavirus, we still think coming out of it a hotel downtown will be vital to the success of downtown Macon as a tourist destination.”

Visit Macon tourism recruiters agree. A recent study of Macon’s hotel market showed the urban core could benefit from 500 new hotel rooms in the next 3-7 years.

The $90 million Central City Commons project planned for a 122-room Hyatt Place hotel. The mixed-use development was expected to create about 150 permanent jobs and generate nearly $1 million in sales and hotel-motel tax revenue.

Macon’s old Hilton hotel last operated in 2012. It supposedly has been under renovation since 2014 and was to become an upscale 300-room Wyndham Hotel.

“It’s really a relic,” hotel consultant Erich Baum told Visit Macon during its February meeting. “The fact that it’s standing there vacant is not a positive thing.”

In Baum’s analysis of Macon’s hotel market, he said downtown hotels were trending in the industry before the pandemic.

Morrison is hopeful that a future federal economic stimulus infrastructure package could provide necessary funding for developers to proceed as planned and spur more projects.

“There’s a bunch of questions being worked out in the market,” said Heath, who also noted that construction prices are coming down, which could make securing financing easier.

The renaissance of downtown’s nightlife creates a market for lodging for those from out of town who want to take advantage of bars, restaurants, concerts and theater.

The increase in downtown residents also brings the need for service shops.

Debra Gray is preparing to open Alexandria’s boutique and salon on the ground floor of the Dempsey Apartments at 371 Third St.

The lease is the first secured by the UDA since it purchased the old hotel and the virus has not postponed the schedule.

Gray, who was operating out of the indoor flea market on Eisenhower Parkway, is shooting for a grand opening target date of July 1.

“I’m looking forward to it,” said Gray, who named the shop after her stepdaughter, who was killed in an auto accident.

The UDA board believes the business will be something downtown residents and workers will embrace.

Owners of Per Diem Market on the ground floor of Dannenburg Lofts on Poplar Street were getting ready to open the general store in time for the Cherry Blossom Festival.

A Feb. 27 Facebook post shows the store’s flats of bright green plants catching sun from the storefront window.

The onset of the coronavirus delayed their opening and temporarily closed multiple neighboring businesses.

On March 19, Jeremy Jackson posted a sign on his Daiquiris & More location on Second Street.

Jackson, too, planned a new business by the start of this year’s festival which was canceled due to the virus.

Jackson has had contractors working on the old Chen’s Wok location where he expects to open Crave Scratch Kitchen near the junction of Cotton Avenue and Second Street.

“Our contractors did the best they could to continue working under the new guidelines set by the CDC, so of course that pushed back our timeline,” Jackson stated in a message Friday. “Construction is now 95 percent complete and we will begin hiring shortly.”

Jackson now anticipates opening July 1.

“One positive we can take from all this is that we will start day-1 being in compliance with ALL guidelines instead of having to adjust,” Jackson said.

Kinjo Kitchen + Cocktails was about to open its doors at the corner of Second and Poplar just before the virus struck.

Their Facebook page announces a grand opening June 2-6, with reservations required, for its cuisine of “Asian-inspired soul food with a pinch of Southern flair.”

UDA is postponing loan payments from Kinjo and other local businesses for the months of April, May and June.

Morrison said he’s been in contact with those owners who have loans with the authority.

“They’re all feeling pretty positive about their standing,” Morrison told the authority members at the meeting. “They kind of run the gamut from established businesses to Kinjo that didn’t even get a chance to open but fully plans to ramp up operations as soon as they’re legally allowed.”

After Gov. Brian Kemp relaxed Georgia’s COVID-19 executive order closing non-essential businesses and dine-in restaurants, downtown is slowly coming back to life.

About the only thing certain about the future is the uncertainty that the virus brings to the economy and how businesses will have to operate going forward.

Fear of contracting the deadly disease could curtail customers venturing out as they have in the past.

Nightclubs remain closed and Visit Macon doesn’t expect to see the tourism market see a resurgence until late summer.

Organizations such as NewTown Macon and the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce are helping entrepreneurs navigate this new territory.

Heath said he’s continuing to talk with the UDA and plans to proceed with Central City Commons in the post-COVID-19 environment, if possible.

“It was take a deep breath and try to work through this,” Heath said. “No matter how much we want, we can’t make the banks close at a time like this.”

Contact Civic Reporting Senior Fellow Liz Fabian at 478-301-2976 or fabian_lj@mercer.edu.


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