Voters in Macon and Bibb County will soon elect their first representatives in the new consolidated government — nine city-county commissioners representing nine all-new districts.
Where are these new districts? Who lives in them? Who are they likely to vote for? Mercer University students from the Center for Collaborative Journalism spent a semester investigating each district to find out.
District One forms the northern tip of Bibb County from Coliseum Northside Hospital up to The Shoppes at River Crossing—what locals call “the new mall”—and then up to the affluent housing developments around Bass Road. It’s 68 percent white, 24 percent black and majority Republican.
If they were to make a “Real Housewives of Macon,” District One resident Mandy Dupree thinks there would be a lot of potential cast members around here. “You can almost go in the grocery store and figure out which ones are which,” she said. “Married to men who make a lot of money, like doctors, lawyers…I think that’s where you would find them in Macon. You’re certainly not going to find them in Bloomfield or, you know, over off Gray Highway.”
District One also includes a sliver of land claimed by Bibb County’s northern neighbor, Monroe County. The border has been in dispute since at least the 1940s, but no one really cared until recent development made it a treasure trove of tax revenue. Both sides have spent millions in a legal fight that shows no signs of stopping.
District Two starts all the way up at the Northgate Shopping Center and continues down along the east side of I-75. It covers almost the entire East Macon neighborhood, swings southwest to encompass the medical area downtown, and then along Houston Avenue into South Macon.
It’s majority Democratic and 66 percent black, though the demographics are changing rapidly in the district’s share of downtown. New housing developments are making the area more racially diverse and economically upscale, said Alex Morrison, executive director of the Macon-Bibb County Urban Development Authority. “As more young professionals or retirees move into these lofts, you’re going to see that median income creep up,” he said.
It’s a change that’s already apparent to Pete Mills, who sells water and sodas from a cooler along Cherry Street, where District Two bumps up against District Eight. “I think it’s catering more to the well-to-do than to the minorities,” he said.
Nonetheless, District Two remains majority-minority, with census tracts in East and South Macon showing African American populations above 90 percent.
District Three is 71 percent black and votes overwhelmingly Democratic. The vast majority of the people in the district live along Gray Highway in between East Macon and the Jones County border, and around Bowden Golf Course. But the vast majority of the area is a largely undeveloped and sparsely populated band running between Bibb County’s eastern and southern corners.
Robert Giddings and his father Jack run the East Side Flea Market not far from the Macon Downtown Airport, in an area crossed by many rough dirt roads. “We sell whatnots, sometimes fishing poles,” the younger Giddings said, surveying his stock. They also sell bait to anglers headed for nearby ponds. Asked who lives around this part of the county, he replied: “Just downhome folk.”
Perhaps the most famous resident of this part of District Three isn’t a person, but rather the Graphic Packaging International plant on Mead Road, which sends a funny smell into Macon when the weather is right. But Robert Giddings never smells it, he said, perhaps due to “being around this dirt and them worms.”
A lot of the institutions that define old north Macon money can be found in District Four. It’s bounded by two country clubs: Idle Hour to the east and Barrington Hall to the west. In between, there’s Wesleyan College, First Presbyterian Day School and Stratford Academy.
But things have been changing fast, particularly along Zebulon Road, where Lisa Mayfield teaches art at Sonny Carter Elementary School, and where her own kids went to school not too long ago.
“When we started here in ‘98, we were probably about maybe 30 percent minority. And now we are probably about 60 percent minority,” Mayfield said. “It is more transient now. And I would attribute that to more apartment buildings that have been built in this school zone. We’ve got apartments, you know, on the other side of Zebulon Road here. Of course apartments have a tendency to mean you have a transient population that comes and goes.”
Despite all the changes, District Four remains—along with District One to the north—the whitest and most Republican-leaning area of the new consolidated Macon and Bibb County.
On the north end of District Five you have the leafy neighborhood of Ingleside. On the south end there’s Central High School and West Macon. In the middle there’s Vineville and Stanislaus, where Robert Craig lives.
“It’s like an island,” Craig said. “You know, on that side an impoverished area, on this side a redeveloping area…Vineville, that area, that's all being redeveloped…But you’ve got areas over there that are, I wouldn't say impoverished, but not really contributing to Macon that much.”
If Stanislaus is an “island,” the “shore” is a large metal gate that blocks through traffic from Pio Nono Avenue into the neighborhood. On the other side, there’s a smoky Citgo station where Michael Moye plays video poker machines in the back.
“I mean, they probably look out for their safety as a neighborhood,” Moye said, speculating as to why Stanislaus residents erected the gate. “It's no biggie. You know becuase I mean it’s racism and differences all over the world… just things you just have to get around, you know what I mean?”
District Five is majority Democratic, 67 percent black, and 33 percent white, though almost all of the latter live north of that gate.
Mercer University students who contributed to this story nicknamed District Six “Big West,” because it consists of Bibb County’s sparsely populated borderlands with Crawford and Monroe counties. It’s about 60 percent white and leans Republican.
Many people who live around Lake Tobesofkee, such as Justin Hall, describe themselves as in some way self-employed and independent-minded. Asked what a city-county commissioner should do for his or her district, Hall responded: “Probably less. Meddle less.”
“Consolidation isn’t going to fix the problem with Macon,” Hall continued, while playing with his son in Claystone Park near their home on the lake. “Having people solve their own problems is the only thing that’s going to take care of it.”
For decades, this part of Bibb County has been represented by commissioner Joe Allen, often described as an “old-school” southern Democrat. However, he was elected by a district that also included some more urban areas of West Macon.
The new district line stops at the campus of Middle Georgia State College, formerly Macon State; it’s now the most rural political territory in Macon-Bibb.
Out of the nine new districts, five are solidly Democratic, and three are solidly Republican. District Seven is more balanced; it leans Republican, but only slightly.
Though the elections are officially nonpartisan, control of the new city-county commission could rest on who wins this district, said Patrick Davis, who writes for The Central Georgian, an online newspaper that covers the African American community. “Even if Democrats are able to get a majority of five-four, it will be mostly symbolic,” he said, because a vote of six on the commission will be required to pass a budget.
District Seven starts at the current southern border of the City of Macon and follows Houston Road and I-75 all the way down to the Houston County border. It’s mostly rural; 57 percent white, and 37 percent black.
The political split in the district is embodied by the voting precincts within its borders, Davis said. “It consists of Rutland One, which is the largest conservative precinct in the county, and it has a very high participation rate,” he said. “And then there are two smaller, progressive, Democratic-leaning precincts that have a majority of African Americans, Godfrey Four and Godfrey Seven.”
Because the district is so evenly split, turnout will be key to the outcome of any election there, Davis said.
District Eight stretches from downtown to where I-75 crosses Pio Nono Avenue on the south side of town. It’s 72 percent black and overwhelming Democratic.
Downtown is rapidly revitalizing, but the same cannot be said about the area around Pio Nono. The two sides don’t seem to have much in common. Except Waffle House.
Waffle House restaurant #40 is at the intersection of Riverside and Spring Street downtown. Waitress Myishia Mcfadden describes her customers as quiet and pleasant. “Sometimes we have little relationships here where we just remember the people who come and welcome them back and sit them down,” she said.
Adrian Stringer over at Waffle House #38 on Pio Nono describes her customers much the same way. “It’s a place where all the old boys meet, drink coffee and gossip,” she said.
Things change a bit, though, when you cross I-75 into District Seven, Stringer said. There’s a third Waffle House almost within sight. “You have the left side of the tracks and the right side of the tracks,” she said, adding that most of the black customers come to her store, while whites go to the other. “I just think they pull together where they want,” she said.
District Nine starts at the Georgia Academy for the Blind, then hops Vineville Avenue into Payne City and follows Log Cabin Drive south to the Macon Mall. It’s about 70 percent black and votes about 70 percent Democratic.
On Sundays one can drive along Napier Avenue and Mumford Road and see churches almost vibrating off their foundations with music. While churches are historically a driver of African American turnout, Reverend Marvin Colbert at Bethel AME cautions against thinking they will determine this upcoming election. “So many of the members are transient members, they actually live in other parts of the city,” he said. “We’ve got people that live in East Macon, some in South Macon, just all over.”
The issue of what will drive turnout in District Nine may be moot anyway, at least when it comes to the city-county commission race. Only one candidate, current city councilor James Timley, has qualified for the ballot.
None of the mayoral candidates have asked to speak to Colbert’s congregation yet. For him, up until now, consolidation has been much more personal. “My wife is a Bibb County employee,” Colbert said. “She has worked for 25 years in Bibb County government, and for changes to come in that could affect her at the end of her career that could really be detrimental, that’s a major concern for us.”
Indeed, some of the longest and most contentious debates around consolidation in recent months haven’t been about politics, but employee pay and benefits.
Students worked on this report in conjunction with a class in investigative reporting at Mercer University taught by professor Jay Black. It was edited by Adam Ragusea.