BY JENNIFER BUCHOLTZ
PHOTOGRAPHS BY MATTHEW R. SMITH
The Lofts at Mercer Village, a $10 million mixed-use development on Mercer’s Macon campus, recently opened the doors to its bustling 13,750 square feet of retail space and fully leased top three floors of three- and four-bedroom loft-style apartments that reflect a sleek urban design. With Phase I complete, and Phase II of Lofts at Mercer Village on its way, success resounds on multiple fronts: for the University and its students, the City of Macon, and the surrounding neighborhood. An idea spurred from a class project in 2006 built momentum that has continued over the past five years, resulting in more than $25 million in public and private funding towards economic development of the College Hill Corridor, home of Lofts at Mercer Village.
The Fate of the City
“The key to economic growth lies not just in the ability to attract the creative class, but to translate that underlying advantage into creative economic outcomes in the form of new ideas, new high-tech businesses and regional growth,” noted Richard Florida in his 2002 book, The Rise of The Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life. In fall 2006, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation funded travel for a group of Mercer seniors — Kimberly Humphries, Veronica McClendon, Alex Morrison and Matt Wetherington — to meet Richard Florida in Washington, D.C., and learn how they could help spur economic development in Macon. These students, who were enrolled in Dr. Peter Brown’s senior capstone class, “The Fate of the City,” learned that a baseline indicator of a region’s overall standing in the creative economy is based on four equally weighted factors. Those factors are the creative class share of the workforce, high-tech industry, innovation and diversity. Members of the “Creative Class” are scientists, engineers, architects, educators, writers, artists and entertainers.
An incubator for attracting and retaining the Creative Class who influence future economic growth, the College Hill Corridor concept was formed in spring 2007 out of these students’ inspiration to unite Mercer University, downtown Macon and the neighborhoods connecting the two entities. The College Hill Corridor is a two-square-mile area between Mercer and Macon’s downtown business district, and is comprised of several historic city neighborhoods. Originally formed as a Commission appointed jointly by the mayor and Mercer President William D. Underwood, this group of volunteers now serves as advisers to the College Hill Alliance. The College Hill initiative is funded by a $5 million grant from Knight Foundation — $2 million awarded to Mercer to create the College Hill Alliance and $3 million to the Community Foundation of Central Georgia to be administered to residents who develop projects that improve the Corridor. College Hill Alliance staff are responsible for implementation of the Master Plan — drafted in 2008-09 with community input and funded by another Knight grant — that fosters neighborhood revitalization, improves public spaces and infrastructure for multimodal transportation and is a catalyst for commercial and residential development that strengthens the character of the College Hill Corridor.
College Hill Corridor:
Catalyst for Mercer Village
In spring 2008, more than 100 Mercer students, faculty and staff joined President Underwood and city officials to celebrate the opening of Ingleside Village Pizza on Montpelier Avenue, adjacent to Mercer’s Macon campus. One of the early student visionaries for the Corridor, Matt Wetherington, told the crowd, “This is a great first step in bringing students off campus and really seeing what we have to offer as a Mercer-Macon community.” Excitement and anticipation circled the crowd, as a physical marker breathed life in the process of linking Mercer students to Macon’s downtown began.
A second business, Jittery Joe’s Coffee, opened next door. The coffee shop’s owners Kim Collins, who attended Mercer Law School, and her husband Ben, received a warm welcome by students and the community. Collins commented on the developing college-friendly commercial district, saying “It’s a great little neighborhood with great potential, and we appreciate what the College Hill Corridor Commission is doing to help it grow.” The vision to repurpose an existing underutilized historic neighborhood commercial center into a set of college-friendly businesses blossomed, and the beginnings of Mercer Village gained traction.
Mercer Village then welcomed Francar’s Buffalo Wings. Carl Fambro, a Mercer graduate and retired U.S. Army officer, had been operating his business for 15 years on Macon’s west side before deciding to relocate to Mercer Village. Awaiting the move in early 2009, he said, “I enjoyed my time at Mercer, and I’ve always enjoyed my interactions with students. I’m really looking forward to being a part of Mercer student and alumni events. I’m hoping our business becomes an extension of the University.”
By spring 2011, the once vacant commercial space tucked between Montpelier Avenue and Coleman Avenue reached capacity. Rodeo Beach Outfitters completed the existing retail space by catering to the weekend warrior, casual camper, fitness junkie and outdoor enthusiast. In the storefront previously occupied by The Bike Store, Rodeo Beach continues to carry bikes, bike parts and accessories, and cycling clothing.
“Mercer Village has become a point of destination and the Corridor’s anchor commercial area,” said Pat Madison, executive director of the College Hill Alliance. Mercer Village serves not only a physical, but a cultural and social path to connect Mercer and downtown Macon.
Lofts at Mercer Village:
From an underutilized and deteriorating commercial space, Mercer Village was born into a vibrant invitation for interaction with like-minded creatives. A place to relax, shop and converse over a cup of coffee. Not only a place to visit, Mercer Village now is a place to live, with the August grand opening of its newly constructed Lofts at Mercer Village.
Expanding retail space at Mercer Village by 13,750 square feet and adding 117 student residents, the Lofts at Mercer Village is the new that meets the old in a momentous cycle of creating and supporting community in the College Hill Corridor.
“The Lofts at Mercer Village,” Dr. Jim Netherton, Mercer’s executive vice president of administration and finance, noted “is part of the University’s 10-year strategic plan.” The construction of the Lofts at Mercer Village is a significant step in continuing to create a vibrant neighborhood adjacent to Mercer’s campus.
“Vibrant neighborhoods attract students, allowing Mercer to accept more competitive students,” added Dr. Netherton. Increased student populations, however, demand more housing. The Lofts at Mercer Village is Mercer’s newest housing option and one answer to keeping students close to campus.
“Studies show that universities where students live on campus have higher retention and graduation rates,” explained Dr. Netherton.
Jim Daws, president of Macon-based Sierra Development, worked with Mercer’s vision for increased residential housing adjacent to campus, and brought plans to reality with the Lofts at Mercer Village.
“Mercer’s administration is forward-thinking, and it’s been a pleasure working with their professional team,” Daws said.
A trendy urban interior with brick exterior reflecting the traditional architectural elements of the Mercer campus, the Lofts at Mercer Village offers students year-round housing in fully furnished suites with private bathrooms, private laundry, and full kitchens with high-end finishes such as granite countertops and environmentally friendly cork floors. A lobby area with lounge areas, two private study rooms, and a common-use eating area invite residents to gather in conversation and study in groups. Key-card access and security cameras around the building’s perimeter, at elevators, and in the lobby ensure safety of Loft residents.
“We regularly receive calls from people wanting to live in the Corridor,” Madison said. This demand is most evident with the fully occupied three floors of three- and four-bedroom loft-style apartments across the street from Madison’s College Hill Alliance office in Mercer Village.
The proximity to Mercer’s campus, with the convenience of shops and restaurants, makes the Lofts a desirable choice for students seeking off-campus freedoms.
“Students are most impressed with having their own private bathroom — something they don’t get in traditional on-campus housing,” said Eric Martinez, property supervisor at the Lofts. “Students are drawn to the Lofts, however, because they can be close to their friends on campus, plus have the freedoms associated with living on their own in an area with retail and restaurant conveniences,” added Daws.
The Lofts has created a vibrant streetscape, enhancing the retail development at Mercer Village. Of the 13,750 square feet of retail space, approximately half is occupied by Mercer’s Bookstore operated by Barnes & Noble. Serving the needs of Mercer students with textbooks, the bookstore also attracts a cross-section of the Mercer and Macon communities with its availability of new best-seller and classic titles. In addition to books, visitors will find a large selection of merchandise bearing the Mercer name or logo.
“There is a tremendous pride for our school — not just on campus, but all over Macon. Our new merchandise will help more people show their Mercer pride,” said Bill Green, bookstore manager.
The Lofts also brought three additional retailers to Mercer Village: Fountain of Juice, Margarita’s Mexican Grill and Designer Tan.
Serving Paninis, salads and smoothies in their European market setting, Fountain of Juice is locally owned by Natasha and Carl Phillips. They plan to further connect the College Hill Corridor to downtown Macon by offering food delivery to downtown employers.
“We received immediate interest in retail space at the Lofts,” Daws said. “This allowed us to choose retailers who would create the best mix for the vision of a vibrant place to live and hang out,” he added. With Phase II of Lofts at Mercer Village on its way, Daws is looking to further diversify Mercer Village’s retail mix. A hair salon, dry cleaner and trendy clothing stores reflecting college-student preferences are being discussed. “The retailers, including those already established in Mercer Village, will be able to feed off each other’s success and create a destination area on Macon’s map.”
Where historic foundations meet new beginnings, the College Hill Corridor stands as a model of urban community. Today, Mercer Village is the “college town cool” with locally owned and unique businesses that invite both students and neighborhood residents to eat, shop, relax and interact. Students residing at the Lofts at Mercer Village have the fortune to be part of the developing storyline whose modest beginnings started in the classrooms at Mercer University.