Historic Macon for a New Macon 2017
In May of 2015, the Historic Macon Foundation announced a new vision statement during their annual meeting. On the surface, the change was slight, just one word adjusted – the earlier version stated that Historic Macon aimed to be “the premier preservation organization in the region,” whereas the new statement showcased loftier goals – that Historic Macon would strive to be the premier preservation organization in the nation. It’s no small feat that this organization, which has been working tirelessly since 1964 to revitalize Macon by preserving our architecture and sharing our rich history, has been able to meet so many of its current goals and set its future goals so high. With the leadership, passion, and enthusiasm of executive director Ethiel Garlington and the staff he’s assembled, Historic Macon is poised to make 2017 another year full of innovative success.
Garlington, a native of Knoxville, Tennessee, had been to Macon exactly once in his life before he accepted the job with Historic Macon – he was earning his Master of Historic Preservation degree at UGA at the time, and Macon was a stop on a road trip/field trip he took with his class. “I can remember thinking, ‘Wow, this relatively small town has a hell of a lot of cool buildings,” Garlington says, recalling his amazement at visiting the Bennett House on Georgia Avenue with its subterranean spring that used to be one of two sources of drinking water for the city. Fast forward a few years: Garlington, who was currently working as Director of Preservation Field Services at Knox Heritage in his hometown, got a telephone call from Historic Macon. “I always joke that in nonprofits, you don’t really get headhunted,” says Garlington, who was intrigued by the proposition but also happy with his current position. “The last thing the woman who called said to me was ‘Well, nothing ventured, nothing gained,’” he laughs. “That resonated!”
He and his wife did some research online, initially impressed by middle Georgia’s highly competitive real estate pricing, but further drawn in by the reports of Macon’s rapid downtown expansion. Garlington drove down for an interview on a weekend that had started off cold and dreary in Knoxville but “it was like the clouds parted when we got to Macon – it was spring already, and everything was just gorgeous! And all the buildings and the architecture were as amazing as we remembered, and the people were so genuine and excited.” After a weekend spent absorbing the best of what Macon has to offer, including brunch at Dovetail during which Garlington and his wife were ‘strategically’ seated with Jessica Walden and Jamie Weatherford, co-owners of Rock Candy Tours – “No one can sell Macon better than them!” Garlington says – his mind was made up and he accepted the job – “The opportunity to be a part of something so vibrant, and to lead this organization which has such a rich history – it was daunting, but I felt up for the challenge.”
The transition wasn’t an easy one – shortly after Garlington accepted the position, for varying reasons, he found himself needing to hire what amounted to a whole new staff. “It was a full changing of the guard,” he says. Garlington’s hires have been wonderful for the organization – among the new staffers is Emily Hopkins, Special Events and Marketing Coordinator, a native of South Carolina who took the job straight out of grad school in Cooperstown, New York and moved to Macon sight unseen. “I was excited to be back in the South,” she says, “and I knew this organization had been doing incredible things.” She’d had the chance to see Historic Macon’s former director Josh Rogers deliver a lecture at Cooperstown; as a Museum Studies major, she’d been impressed by the organization’s work with the Sidney Lanier Cottage. Garlington was also able to hire several other full-time employees, among them a loan fund manager and a preservation carpenter, and he was also able to expand the business manager position from part-time to full-time. Now that they’re fully staffed with eight full-timers and one part-timer, the old office space is becoming cramped; 2017 will bring a change of scenery for the Historic Macon offices, which will be moving to a new location on Poplar Street near the old Capricorn Studios sometime mid-year.
After the intensity of the 2014 changes, Historic Macon has coalesced again into an incredibly dynamic organization doing amazing and varied work all around the mid-state – that’s been the case for the nearly half-century the organization has been around, though, and Garlington and his staff acknowledge and appreciate that ingrained longstanding work ethic and commitment to preservation and community. According to Garlington, many preservation societies are only able to complete one single-family home rehabilitation per year (or even every other year) – this does help neighborhoods, and ideally creates a ripple effect, but Historic Macon’s track record of rehabbing fifteen or so homes per year every year is unheard of. “The way we work is different from most organizations,” Garlington says. “We focus on one neighborhood at a time and really invest resources and laser-focus human capital and financial capital into that neighborhood, because we’ve learned over the past 30 years that’s what works best.”
Just drive through Beall’s Hill, the historic neighborhood adjacent to Mercer University in downtown Macon that has been Historic Macon’s focus for the past few years, and you can see the hard work in action. The historic homes and lower-income housing that once sat blighted and neglected are now vibrant and lovely; the diverse neighborhood allows residents to walk to nearby schools, colleges, parks, and restaurants, and the changes have been implemented carefully and sustainably.
Design, Wine & Dine, Historic Macon’s week-long signature fundraiser and lifestyle festival, was centered around a ‘show house’ in Beall’s Hill this past year; after the house was renovated, local designers were invited to exhibit their talents within, with a focus on upcycling and mixing flea-market finds with showroom pieces. The fundraiser also holds several other events that showcase local food and drink – “The cool thing is that every year we do it, there are more new restaurants, new bars, more new things happening that we can help promote,” says Garlington. This past year’s fundraiser featured a Piedmont Brewery-hosted dinner with beer pairings, which was a fun way for locals to get a taste of the soon-to-be-open restaurant’s fares, and useful for Piedmont in that they got to experiment with their food, drinks, and pairings on a happily captive audience.
“Another thing we like to do is get people into really cool houses and private residences that they may not have an opportunity to see inside unless they know that person,” says Emily Hopkins, speaking of the Design, Wine & Dine dinner held in Shannon Fickling’s home this past year. 2017 will see a continuing expansion of this signature fundraiser, with many more opportunities for locals to explore historic properties and enjoy delicious food and drinks, all for a fantastic cause.
Historic Macon’s Flea Market, the longest-running tradition in the organization’s history, will have its 40th anniversary in 2017 – with its successful move this past year to a permanent location on Oglethorpe Street next door to Macon Beer Company, plans are already in the works to make this year’s market a memorable one. The Music Registry, a documentation project in partnership with Rock Candy Tours, NewTown Macon, and GABBA that celebrates and commemorates Macon’s rich music history via plaques placed at significant music-related locales around town, unveiled its first round of markers in September of 2016; the next round will be installing soon, and Historic Macon is on the lookout for individuals or businesses who might be interested in purchasing or sponsoring a plaque.
Another Historic Macon program that continues to be important is the Fading Five – this is a tool that preservation organizations across the country use to create awareness about historic properties threatened by neglect or possible demolition. Each year, five properties are chosen to be included on the list, and those properties remain on the list until they are considered ‘saved’ by the preservation committee. The inaugural list for Macon was published in 2015, and four out of those five properties have left the list so far. “This gets us working in a lot of different neighborhoods,” Hopkins says. “It’s also attracted more funding, because people want to donate to buildings in their neighborhood, so it helps us do more grassroots fundraising.”
The list of projects and events Historic Macon has its hands in could go on and on – it’s a testament to the vibrant, impassioned leadership of Garlington and his team that the organization continues to grow, spread, and diversify, with no slowing down in sight. Programs like the low-interest loans and the tax credit program (impressively, Historic Macon has done more tax credit projects than anyone in the state for four years in a row) give homeowners incentives to preserve, restore, and rehabilitate their historic properties, while projects like the Neighborhood Incubator, funded by a Knight Cities Challenge Grant, work to help historic neighborhoods organize and staff neighborhood associations and preserve the integrity of their infrastructure. Macon is doubly fortunate – first, we get to live amongst so much beautiful, rare, striking history, and second, we have an organization like Historic Macon in place to help us preserve that history with the care and respect it deserves.
For information on Historic Macon’s programs, projects, advocacy, how to volunteer, or anything else you might want to know, please visit them on the web at www.historicmacon.org