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The first fully enclosed mall in the United States opened on October 8, 1956. Thirty years later, 25,000 shopping malls existed nationwide, representing more than 50 percent of U.S. retail sales and serving as de facto town squares.
As the popularity of malls grew, so did the actual malls. Mega malls started popping up in the early 1990s, highlighted by the 5.6 million-square-foot Mall of America outside of Minneapolis, which at one point was home to 43 million visitors each year and $900 million in annual sales.
But as consumer behaviors changed and more people began buying from home through TV shopping channels, online via Amazon, or at one-stop shops like Walmart instead of department stores, meandering in malls lost its luster. Hit by the recession in 2008 and further exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, malls have transformed from bustling public spaces to ghost towns, leaving municipalities with massive vacant structures supported by valuable infrastructure.
Some see them as problems, while others, like Macon-Bibb County, Georgia officials, see opportunity.
“It was not a choice of ‘wouldn’t it be great if we did something with the mall (or not)?’ If we were going to return value to citizens of the neighborhoods around the mall, we had to be the ones to stem that tide in the swirl of depreciating property values,” said Alex Morrison, Macon-Bibb County Director of Planning and Public Spaces and Executive Director of the Urban Development Authority. “Our citizens were losing equity in their homes, and when our citizens lose equity in their homes, that leads to blight, disinvestment, and other issues.”
“If we can prevent that blight from happening and can put money back in the pockets of our citizens without them having to make significant investments themselves— and we’re doing this while decreasing their property taxes (through the county’s Other Local Option Sales Tax)— we are giving hope to a community and possibilities of generational wealth to these citizens that wasn’t there before we started this project.”
To stem the tide against the depreciation that expands out from the 1.1 million-square-foot Macon Mall, officials are reinvigorating the area through redevelopment. The property is positioned well for growth. The mall sits at the geographical center of Macon-Bibb County, which is in the geographical center of the state of Georgia.
Highlighted by a 12,000-seat amphitheater and a 32-court indoor pickleball facility that’s expected to be the world’s largest indoor pickleball facility, the revitalization project is buoyed by Macon’s musical heritage. Macon is home to The Otis Redding, Allman Brothers Band, Little Richard, and Jason Aldean. It’s also a city obsessed with America’s fastest-growing sport.
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The 150,000-square-foot pickleball facility is scheduled to open the first weekend in November, while the amphitheater will host its first community events in early March, with its inaugural season beginning in late March/early April.
Separate areas on the former mall property will house municipal offices, including the county’s board of elections and county courtrooms. Some departments are already utilizing the new location.
“It’s already started to revitalize that entire area and make people rethink what malls need to be,” Macon-Bibb Mayor Lester Miller said. “For us, it’s economic— it’s jobs, it’s stability, and it’s been increasing property values in that area. We’re going to see some developments spur up there with some hotels, residences, and lofts. And other businesses that were going to leave are now staying.”
The county issued a $44 million bond for the project. The mall owners Hull Property Group donated the property before the bond issuance. Macon-Bibb County is working with Georgia Power to finance upgrades needed for electrical and HVAC for the facility, as well as Oak View Group, which will operate the amphitheater.
In July 2022, crews from the Public Works Department began tearing up parking lots and islands at Macon Mall, which opened in 1975, to pave the way for the new amphitheater’s groundbreaking. The amphitheater will be located on the site’s southeast corner, facing Rocky Creek and Mercer University Drive. The venue will have three distinct seating areas— 2,500 fixed seats in a stepped seating bowl, 1,500 temporary seats on a flat floor between the fixed seats and stage, and 6,000 lawn seats outside the bowl and roof structure. The amphitheater also features VIP seating in 10 boxes between the pit and fixed seating. Macon-Bibb officials expect an estimated 255,000 unique visitors to the amphitheater in its first year.
“It’s going to be one-of-a-kind with no obstructions throughout,” Miller said. “All the suites have already been sold.”
Not only do officials believe the new amphitheater will be the new talk of the town, but the world’s largest indoor pickleball facility will benefit local community members and tourists alike.
Already hosting nearly ten pickleball tournaments each year at Tattnall Square Park (a former USTA facility built in the 1970s), officials are salivating at the prospects of an indoor facility that can bring year-round play without noise or weather obstacles.
“If we’re doing around 100 events per year at the amphitheater and hosting year-round tournaments at the pickleball facility, we anticipate that the net economic impact could be anywhere between $100-125 million (just from those things) on an annual basis, which is huge,” Morrison said.
That doesn’t include people playing pickleball or coming to the amphitheater for a concert and enjoying the other amenities around the complex, including dining, retail, hotels, and motels. Miller said the site is also well positioned to potentially house a casino, should Georgia permit gambling and want a centralized location for an establishment.
Not only will revenue from the new facility go into paying off the bond as well as operations and management, but the money will support some of Macon’s other assets, including the Tubman Museum, Georgia Sports Hall of Fame, Douglas Theatre, Visit Macon, Cherry Blossom Festival, and more around the county.
With a centralized location set to welcome hundreds of thousands annually for concerts, pickleball, and more, Macon’s makeover has just begun.
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