In the early 1990s, downtown Macon was in dire straits. The anchor retail tenants had abandoned giant downtown buildings to move to indoor malls, leaving downtown desolate and decaying. Not long into its existence, the Peyton Anderson Foundation and its founding President Juanita Jordan began contemplating how to reverse downtown’s fortunes. Fortuitously, Brenda Barnett from the Trust for Public Land scheduled a meeting with Jordan to discuss how the Peyton Anderson Foundation might help the Trust advance its program for urban recreational trails. At the time, Jordan was working to found a non-profit to implement best practices in downtown revitalization, which became NewTown Macon. Seeing an opportunity, Barnett offered to cooperate to help found NewTown if Jordan would help form a vision for an urban trail in Macon. From this moment forward, Jordan made the creation of a multi-use river trail system central to Macon’s downtown revitalization strategies and NewTown has been responsible for implementing this program.
Knowing the trail needed champions, Jordan recruited Ben Porter, who at that time was serving on the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Board. Porter and Jordan recruited Macon-based contractor Chris Sheridan, who brought Macon-based engineer Bill Hodges into the project. This group of volunteers approached Mike Ford, who was just completing a volunteer commitment at the Museum of Arts and Sciences. Thanks to Jordan’s leadership, Porter, Sheridan, Hodges, and Ford spent much of their personal and professional time and resources creating the Ocmulgee Heritage Trail.
These volunteers began their work by forging an alliance between Macon City and Bibb County leaders around the idea of the trail. In a very unusual move, the city and county partnered to issue $5 million in bonds to launch the trail, with a commitment from NewTown Macon to raise significant private resources to match these funds. From 1995 until 2000, the plan was to construct the first leg of the trail on the west side of the river, which would be cantilevered or floating on the river. While attempting to engineer a solution within the budget, Charles H. Jones Gateway Park was constructed as the first trail amenity, expected to serve as a trailhead for the downtown trail. Several years were spent trying to engineer a solution to have a trail on the downtown side of the river before the group turned their attention to the east. In approximately 2001, the first section of walkable trail was installed across the river from Gateway Park, connecting the Otis Redding and Spring Street bridges. This section quickly led to an extension from Spring Street to Glenridge Drive. Projects proceeded to include improvements to Otis Redding Bridge to connect the eastside trail to Charles H. Jones Gateway Park. Extensions followed from Gateway Park to Central City Park, then a gravel trail along the levee. Improvements to the Riverside Drive sidewalk and the construction of Rotary Park came next. Soon thereafter, the trail was extended from its terminus at Glenridge Drive through the William G. Lee Camellia gardens to Jackson Springs Park. Then a partnership with the then Ocmulgee National Monument created a trail from Clinton Street to the Monument’s visitors center. A short spur was added from Gateway Park to the north to an overlook. Improvements were then made from the gatehouse at Riverside Cemetery to the north end of the cemetery. Loop returns were then added at the east end of the Otis Redding Bridge. Over $9 million was invested in improvements to Amerson River Park, a nearly 200-acre park donated by Macon Water Authority for the benefit of Middle Georgia, in 2016. Amerson River Park continues to be the crown jewel along the Ocmulgee Heritage Trail.
Most recently, several key connections have been completed along the Ocmulgee Heritage Trail. The Walnut Creek Connector, known as the Mike Ford Trail, connects the recently designated Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park to the Ocmulgee Heritage Trail. Additionally, sidewalks have been widened and bike lanes have been added to Third Street, between Walnut Street and Riverside Drive. These improvements will help connect the trail to downtown. This connection will be completed once a crosswalk is added to Riverside Drive at Third Street to make crossing Riverside safer for trail-goers.