|By Mike Stucka, The Macon Telegraph,
Ga.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Aug. 25, 2009--A developer hopes to build $169 million worth of hotels, homes and offices across the street from the Wilson Convention Center, transforming the long-dormant Bibb Mill site.
City officials said the large Bibb Mill Centre development, matched with the soon-to-open Marriott convention center hotel, would launch even more growth and economic vitality downtown.
"It just goes to show that the hotel, as we had thought, would spur additional development in the area, so we are very excited at the possibility of this development," said Elaine Lucas, a Macon City Council member who represents the area.
In all, developer Earl Barrs' project would add a pair of hotels with nearly 300 rooms, almost 400 homes and about 360,000 square feet of medical and other office space.
Details of the Bibb Mill Centre project were sent late last week to the state, which is reviewing the project because of its size and potential regional impact.
The state review could take several more months, said Zan Thompson, president of ZT3 Placemaker Studios, which worked with Barrs to plan the 30-acre site.
Thompson said the project's start might depend on an overall economic revival.
"Back before the economy went south, we had several users who were pushing us to get this through the (state review) and the zoning process," Thompson said.
As money dried up, the developers quit pushing as hard. Thompson predicted the total development would take about nine years to complete, but it would be done in phases.
Barrs, who runs Due South Investments, said last week's filing is another step in a zoning approval that could take another six months to a year.
"We're excited about each little step of our progress we can make," he said.
Barrs said he'd been planning the project before the advent of the Marriott convention center hotel, which forced his plans to change again. Several months ago, Macon's only major downtown hotel, the Ramada, was bought from foreclosure. But Barrs said his projections show the area will quickly grow. The two hotels he's proposing would have different price points than the Marriott hotel, helping them complement rather than compete with the Marriott, he said.
"According to the chamber people and other city leaders, there's certainly a need there for a critical mass, similar to what you see out at Arkwright Road," he said.
The center of the site off Coliseum Drive would feature a 1,951-space parking deck, which could host cars from the Bibb Mill Centre development as well as vehicles from the Marriott and convention center. He hopes the parking deck could be funded with a loan through the Macon-Bibb County Urban Development Authority, Barrs said.
Macon mayoral spokesman Andrew Blascovich said Barrs has been great about planning the development of the property with a shared vision instead of making a "quick buck" off strip malls or other less desirable developments.
"We were looking to see that whole property developed in a meaningful way, and it sounds like it's on the way," he said.
Mike Ford, CEO of NewTown Macon, said the development could bring with it badly needed housing. Ford cited a study that said nearly 1,000 housing units could be added during the next five years without flooding the market. Barrs proposal calls for a four-story building of flats, as well as smaller numbers of row houses and town homes.
"It's going to put a lot more feet on the street downtown," Ford said.
The site was home to Bibb Mills No. 1, which opened in 1876 and closed in 1995. Much of the original factory was razed years ago. Thompson said the only significant building remaining, part of a three-story structure, would be preserved as a small conference center or an eatery.
Lucas said she'd like the city to consider any incentives necessary to make the Bibb Mill Centre development work.
"Because this new development is slated for the area I represent, I like the idea of development on the east side or in Ward 1, but it has a collateral effect throughout the entire city," she said.
Telegraph staff writer Travis Fain contributed to this report. To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.
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