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Making music is Macon’s calling

Courtesy Macon-Bibb Co. CVB

Scores of music fans that have never set foot in Georgia have heard of Macon thanks to a native son who was one of the first inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Singer, songwriter, musician, recording artist and actor Richard Wayne Penniman is considered a key player in the shift from rhythm and blues to rock and roll in the 1950s. His stage name is Little Richard.

“Wherever he goes, he always says, ‘I’m the beautiful Little Richard, the architect of rock ’n’ roll from Macon, Georgia,’” said Ruth Sykes, vice president of media relations and marketing for the Macon-Bibb County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “He’s our goodwill ambassador.”

The often-honored performer is but one of Macon’s musical center stagers, for this rockin’ town also birthed or helped spawn the Allman Brothers, Otis Redding, James Brown, Lena Horne and Capricorn Records.

In terms of meeting business, being at the center of the state also puts the Southern city of 100,000 at center stage. Among its selling points is a location at the intersection of two major interstates, I-75 and I-16, and a meeting complex linked to a new Marriott hotel.

The CentrePlex Convention Center, linked to the Marriott Macon City Center, is at Exit 2 off I-16, a short drive across the Ocmulgee River from downtown.

Two facilities in one

The CentrePlex is two facilities in one: the 102,000-square-foot Edgar H. Wilson Convention Centre and the 9,000-seat Coliseum.

Combined, the two offer 120,000 square feet of meeting space that includes an exhibition hall, a 9,100-square-foot ballroom and 21 breakout rooms. The Marriott has another 5,000 square feet of meeting space.

The complex is owned by the city, which rents space to the Marriott, which in turn manages the complex.

“There’s an enclosed walkway from the Marriott to the convention center, so iffy weather is never an issue,” said Pat Horan, the hotel’s director of sales and marketing. “When the Marriott opened, it took a $175,000 renovation to bring the convention center up to Marriott standards. Prior to the hotel opening, the center had to turn down a number of conventions and meetings because the planners wanted a hotel adjacent or attached.”

For a number of years, Ben Lastly, executive secretary of the Georgia Future Farmers of America (FFA) has planned the annual three-day FFA state convention for 3,000 attendees at the convention center. In September 2009, the Marriott opened, and he was elated.

“It’s been huge having the hotel attached to the center,” he said. “For five years, we kept hearing a hotel was coming, and we made do. Now that it’s here, we have the opportunity to continue meeting and to grow here. Our teachers like the fact that they can drive in, park and not have to leave.”

Macon has three hotel/meeting corridors: I-75, I-475 and downtown.

Eight hotels near convention center
The Marriott and the main CentrePlex property anchor the downtown corridor. Lastly’s attendees stayed there and at eight other hotels nearby in the I-75 corridor. The Marriott’s 220 guest rooms include a presidential suite, and its amenities include a coffee shop, an indoor pool and a 144-seat restaurant with a Southern flair.

“We feature as much local food as we can,” said executive chef George Schnepp. “Seared salmon on black-eyed peas, pulled pork and hoecakes, and smoked shrimp and grits are a few of our specialties. The peaches in our homemade ice cream come from 20 miles down the road.”

Also under the CentrePlex umbrella is the 2,688-seat Macon City Auditorium. The refurbished circa-1925 National Register of Historic Places landmark in the downtown historic district hosts big-name concerts, plays, private receptions and conventions.

Goodwill Industries goes for meetings
The meetings star of the I-475 corridor in west Macon is a former shopping mall. Three years ago, Goodwill Industries turned the mall into a multiplex that includes a 25,000-square-foot conference center, an upscale dining venue and hospitality school, a cafe and bookstore, and a Goodwill retail store. Except for the latter, the elements of the Anderson Conference Center are aimed at meetings.

This spring, the center reconfigured its space, creating a 9,200-square-foot atrium and seven breakout rooms.

Attached to this newly-upgraded space is Edgar’s Bistro, named for Goodwill’s founder, Edgar Helms, and known for its cigars-and-scotch nights, with 100 seats inside and 50 outside. Students at Polly’s Hospitality School prepare meals in the bistro’s kitchen and make soups, salads and pastries for the Good Books Cafe.

“Groups that are meeting in the center can have meals catered by Edgar’s,” said Vickie Mills, director of marketing for Goodwill Industries, “or for a change of scene, attendees can grab coffee and a light meal while they peruse books at the cafe.”

At the center, Goodwill’s focus is on hospitality, culinary and custodial training. Although Goodwill is a nonprofit organization, its conference facility is open to all types of organizations.

“Ours is an ideal space for a group looking for value without having to travel to Atlanta and endure big-city hassles,” said Steve Sitnick, dean of hospitality education. “We’re in the middle of the state, next to I-475 and only five miles from I-75. Because of this, the SMERF [social, military, education, religious and fraternal] market is our bread and butter.”

Five campuses welcome conferences
Five colleges and universities offer a number of meeting sites.

With a new conference center and an entire campus that is an arboretum, Macon State College (MSC) has curb appeal.

Macon’s central location has helped bring the 35 institutions that are members of the University of Georgia to MSC for a meeting for several years. When the college built new classroom space to accommodate them in January 2009, a 100,000-square-foot conference center was included. Now other state agencies book meetings there.

A sizable prefunction space with wide floor-to-ceiling windows and a VIP boardroom with telephone and videoconferencing capacities overlook a lake with a central fountain, and a lakeside patio provides outdoor space. The center also has a banquet hall, a high-tech tiered classroom and a computer lab.

The facility handles a variety of events, small and large.

“During last year’s Cherry Blossom Festival, we hosted around 8,000 people for the balloon glow,” said Albert Abrams, vice president for external affairs.

A $24.2 million education building that will open this summer will add more meeting space.

Broad spectrum of architecture
When it comes to off-site venues, Macon’s options are as varied as the building styles that made it one of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Dozen Distinctive Destinations. There are 5,500 historic structures in 11 historic districts.

“The quality of architecture in Macon is like an old painting preserved with varnish,” said Marike LeBel, who restored an 1894 building in Macon. “All we have to do is gently clean off the varnish, and underneath are these architectural gems.”

For a fun night on the town, attendees can sample Southern eateries at a downtown dine-around. The Tic Toc Room has an extensive martini menu; Michael’s on Mulberry’s private room specializes in fine dining; and in a nod to Macon’s status as the Cherry Blossom Capital of the World, Molly’s Cafe, named for Little Richard’s “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” is locally famous for its cherry-filled chicken salad.

Other favorites include the Nu-Way Weiner Stand, serving red hots since 1916, and the H&H Restaurant, where 80-something “Mama Louise” Hudson, so-named by the Allman Brothers, has served Macon soul-food breakfasts daily till 4 p.m. since 1959.

Five historic theaters add character to the downtown area, architecturally speaking. One of those, primarily a rental property, is the refurbished 1921 Douglass Theatre, where Otis Redding was discovered in the 1950s. The 319-seat theater is a point of pride for the city’s African American community.

“Charles Douglass, Macon’s first African American millionaire, was the son of slaves,” said Butch McCrary, technical director. “He and his wife had been relegated to the colored section in other local theaters, so he built this one so she could attend in her furs.”

At the 1883 Grand Opera House, home to the Macon Symphony, up to 100 people can watch the Macon 1800 Club Dancers perform 19th-century reels and dine on the stage afterward.
Another important piece of Macon’s history is the 1916 Macon Terminal Station, recently renovated into an intermodal facility with grand meeting space in its lobby and waiting room.

“The station is an important part of Macon’s history and railroad history,” said Hal Baskin, with Newtown Macon. “And it’s an anchor to this end of the main business district.”

Nearby is the Tubman African American Museum, named for escaped slave Harriet Tubman, who created the Underground Railroad. Plans are afoot to expand the 8,500-square-foot facility filled with memorabilia and art into 49,000 square feet.

A museum in its own right, the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame blends the legacy of Georgia sports with exhibits on collegiate and pro sports, Olympic and Paralympics participants, and interactive options for basketball, football and NASCAR fans. There’s even an interactive announcer’s booth.

In the evening, groups can book the entire building, including a reception area for 300 or a seated space for 120 to dine on barbecue from Satterfield’s.

“With advance notice, we can arrange for some of the inductees to come and talk to meeting groups,” said Eric Thomas, rental coordinator.

The city’s newest museum speaks to its musical heritage. When an offer to sign with Capricorn Records brought the Allman Brothers to Macon in 1969, the blues/rock/jazz/country artists often “crashed” at one member’s Tudor home. Today, the Big House has been restored as the Allman Brothers Band Museum, showcasing musical instruments, gold records and other band memorabilia.

“The museum is a great off-site venue, and there’s music on the lawn on weekends, so planners get a double value,” said Sykes.

And for a quiet moment during a busy city meeting downtown, attendees can grab carryout and lunch at the feet of Otis Redding, whose life-size statue is in Gateway Park at the trailhead of the Ocmulgee River Heritage Trail. In tribute to the hit released a month after his untimely death at age 26, the “King of Soul” is memorialized sitting on a dock that is not on a bay, but on the silvery ribbon that dissects this city whose roots in music run as deep as those waters.