Should Macon-Bibb save old Bibb Mill’s Train Recreation Center?

The+1920+Train+Recreation+Center+was+built+by+the+Bibb+Manufacturing+Company+to+serve+the+families+living+in+the+old+mill+village.

Liz Fabian

The 1920 Train Recreation Center was built by the Bibb Manufacturing Company to serve the families living in the old mill village.

Liz Fabian

Historic Macon Foundation, Bibb County’s UGA Cooperative Extension and Mayor Robert Reichert made pitches to county commissioners Tuesday morning to save the Train Recreation Center.

The Bibb Manufacturing Co. deeded the 11,000 sq. ft. building and property to the city of Macon in 1966 with the stipulation it must be used by a government or nonprofit for the public good.

“It’s the only surviving building from the expansive Bibb Mill campus,” said nearby neighbor Ryan Griffin, a past chairman of Historic Macon who has invested in downtown properties and renovated his own home up the street. “This time of year, we worry about squatters setting fires to keep warm.”

The 100-year-old building has been on Historic Macon’s Fading Five List of endangered properties since 2016.

In October of 2017, Reichert proposed spending $1.5 million in blight funds to rehabilitate the center, but was met with a “chilly reception” from some Macon-Bibb County commissioners, according to the historic preservation group.

Subsequent listings of Historic Macon’s Fading Five chided leaders for not taking better care of the property: “Ultimately if the County wants to make blight a priority they should start with the properties under their stewardship and lead by example.”

Anchoring the corner of Oglethorpe and First Street, the two-story auditorium and meeting rooms are in disrepair.

There is a gaping hole in the auditorium ceiling of the 1920 building that has been vacant roughly 20 years. Dusty velvet curtains partially mask towering palladium windows in the room where the county’s Christmas decorations are currently stored and basketball games were played decades ago.

As commissioners munched on chicken biscuits and fruit, the morning sun brilliantly illuminated architectural drawings for the building to become home to the UGA Extension office.

Bibb County extension agent Karol Kelly said the building and grounds would be a perfect fit for the variety of services provided to people all over the county, including 4-H, income tax workshops, cooking classes and landscape expertise.

“Right now, we are surrounded by pavement so the green space would be a big impact for us,” Kelly said.

She envisions growing vegetables, a pollinator garden, designating a tree identification area and using a large concrete outdoor patio for gardening demonstrations.

A grand staircase in the foyer leads to the upstairs where there is plenty of room for extension offices.  Space behind the stage could be converted to a demonstration kitchen where mirrors on the ceiling can give classes a bird’s eye view of the meal preparation and expand the food and nutrition services provided.

Liz Fabian
The 100-year-old Train Recreation Center will need about $1 million to stabilize the building apart from any renovation cost estimates.

Some commissioners have balked at spending money to rehabilitate the space and save the building.

Warren Associates’ Warren Selby Jr. recently inspected the building and determined it would take nearly $1 million just to stabilize the structure and fix the roof.

Historic Macon architect Shannon Fickling told commissioners it will likely take less money to save and renovate the building than it would to tear it down and build something new.

“I feel like this public building investment is the last piece in a long-term investment the city has made in the Beall’s Hill neighborhood,” Fickling said.

The work of the Macon Housing Authority to raze Oglethorpe Homes and build new affordable housing kicked off a renaissance. Mercer University worked with the city, Historic Macon and the Knight Foundation, Community Foundation and Peyton Anderson Foundation to restore homes from Tattnall Square Park down the hill toward the Train Center.

Historic Macon Foundation will demolish these three houses on Maple Street for future development a block off Oglethorpe St.

Historic Macon recently secured approval to tear down four dilapidated houses in Beall’s Hill, including three on Maple Street just a couple blocks from the center.

“The one thing we haven’t provided for this neighborhood is a community use building, so to me this is the ideal building that pulls together all the hard work the city has poured into this neighborhood,” Fickling said.

Reichert is advocating to save the building because of its history, prominent location as a gateway to downtown Macon and its potential purpose for the extension service, which is currently spending $45,000 per year for rent on First Street near Riverside Drive.

Reichert is confident the county has the resources from SPLOST blight funds to move forward.

“It’s doable,” the mayor said. “This is not jousting with a windmill. This is not Don Quixote and taking on the impossible dream. It’s difficult but I think with just a little bit of imagination you can see the potential this building has to come back to life.”

Kelly suggested the county could use those monthly lease payments toward paying off a bank note for the project. There is also potential to rent out the building as another future revenue source, similar to the commercial cooperative kitchen at the restored Mill Hill auditorium off Main Street in east Macon, which also is a former Bibb Company building designed by the same architect. The Train building across from fire headquarters and its patio courtyard could easily house receptions or large gatherings, such as the 4-H banquet.

Reichert said he favors allocating blight money to secure the building and then appeal to local foundations or other grant funders to assist in the renovation.

Griffin said approximately 8,000 vehicles pass the building every day.

“I promise they notice the tarp on the roof and the shutters falling off on the front of the building,” he said.

Commissioner Larry Schlesinger remembers visiting the deteriorating Mill Hill Auditorium when that project was in its conceptual stage.

“This is kinda déjà vu,” Schlesinger said.

Although he initially doubted the ability for success in that smaller east Macon facility, he sees it as inspiration.

“It turned out pretty spectacular,” he said. “I think we’ve got a proven venue that we can kinda superimpose upon this and visualize what this can be moving forward.”

Commissioners had a lengthy slate of meetings following the tour and did not take any action or further discuss the Train building, which is one of several projects in the proposed 2020 Blight Plan.

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