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Ethiel

“I grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee. From an early age, I knew that old buildings were cool. So, the house that I was actually born in, my great grandfather built. And, then it was torn down when I was ten. And, even as a ten-year-old, I knew that it didn’t make any sense. It turned into a parking lot. But when I was ten, my sisters and I got to go and sort of salvage this house.

 

So…I went to grad school at University of Georgia for preservation. And it was just sort of a field that I fell into. I didn’t know it existed. But, my dad is an architect, and I spent a lot of time in old buildings…so…anyway, it was incredible that I found this occupation.


So, I lived in Athens for a little while and met my wife, Michelle there. We moved back to Knoxville for a job there with Knox Heritage, which was really interesting because we got to be involved there. And we got to see rural communities, and I worked in 16 counties. And I was there for five years.

 

I got a call from, for lack of a better word, a headhunter who was helping Historic Macon try to find a new Executive Director. I’d always been, sort of, jealous of Historic Macon, going to national conferences. I had only been to Macon one other time before the interview weekend.

 

Anyway, so…I wasn’t interested in the job; I wasn’t interested in moving to Macon. But, the last thing she said on the phone was, ‘Well, nothing ventured, nothing gained.’ And, so Michelle and I decided it was worth just visiting. So, we came down for the interview weekend.

 

And, I tell people it was like the skies parted. Because it was this rainy day in Knoxville, and we get here. And it was already spring. It was incredible.

 

So, not only was the work incredible and more than I could have ever realized, but the people that we met, just that weekend, were just people who were excited about Macon; they were excited about what was happening; they were excited about new people coming to Macon. And it just seemed like the right place for us to be at the time.

 

And, so we took a risk and a plunge and came and…one of the neat things was that we’ve lived in places with strong and vibrant downtowns, so we’ve seen that happen. But, Macon, we saw that we could be a part of that change. So it was an opportunity for us to actually come…because I always felt like I missed that in downtown Knoxville. But, here we could come and be sort of on the upswing.

 

Knoxville…it’s sort of a victim of its own success.

 

So, in Macon, coming here, it was ten or twenty years behind Knoxville which was great for us. And so just in the past three years that we’ve been here, everything that we thought, that people sort of promised was going to happen, has come to life. Everything from Tattnall Square Park to the roundabout, to everything at Mercer, to everything downtown…new businesses, new opportunities.

 

And so, we have an almost two-year-old son that’s just amazing. We never thought we’d have a child in Macon. So, anyway, it’s just become our community and our home.

 

And Historic Macon has grown incredibly just in the past three years. One of the results is that we are moving downtown. So, our organization knows how important downtown is to the community, and we’re sort of ready to move out of the residential neighborhood and move downtown where the action is. And, so we bought this building about a year-and-a-half ago. And at the time we bought it, we looked…we must have looked at ten different buildings kind of all over town, different types of buildings. And this one just sort of happened.

 

Now this block…we knew that the Capricorn project was coming online…is the epicenter of downtown revitalization. And, I doubt that four or five years ago, people would have ever thought that Poplar Street…or this block of Poplar…would be this hot.

 

That cottage, not only have we outgrown it, but it just doesn’t reflect the work that we’re doing. So we do tax credit work all over the state. And so now we’ll have a better storefront to work out of.

 

But, from a personal perspective, Macon has been everything that we had hoped it would be, and I never imagined that I would ever say that.

 

I love my job, and I am very passionate about the work that we do. And, it makes it easy for me to work a lot. But, the other nice thing is that when we got to Macon, we had a built-in group of friends…people that love old buildings, people that love walkable, bikeable communities, people that have kids our age…

 

I hear other people that move to town say it’s hard to meet new people, but we have the luxury of having the Historic Macon network. And, we’ve found that there is so much going on in Macon that, really, just like any town…if you make an effort, peel back a layer, or two, you can really find all sorts of ways to get engaged.

 

We live in Beall’s Hill, so we walk and bike, and live in an old house like we’ve always wanted.

 

I knew that Historic Macon had this incredible legacy; I knew that preservation has been a priority here for a long, long time. And that’s why we have the benefit of the city that we have today. On the flip side of that, on the first day that I started, they started tearing down Tremont Temple, the Baptist church. You know, that was unsettling. I knew it was coming, but it was just unnerving to think, that in a community that understands preservation so much, that we’re still losing iconic places like that and then later, the Douglass House.

 

So, that first year was really frustrating and heartbreaking. But, I’d like to think that we’ve learned a lot from that. The Fading Five success has been tremendous. I mean, we still have a lot of ground to make up in terms of inclusivity and representing the history of our entire community.

 

So, preservation as an industry…started with, and I mean this in an endearing way, little old white ladies who wanted to save historic houses and iconic places in communities. So, as an industry and as a profession, we’ve built from that. And it’s a relatively new concept, I mean it’s probably fifty or sixty years old.

 

What it means is that we, as an organization, need to be…and we are being better about…sort of broadening what we think of as ‘significant.’ But again, it’s a national issue. So, even with the National Register of Historic Places, which is run by the National Park Service, even they…um…dispute the significance of certain places because of integrity and all these kind of vague terms.

 

So it’s a subjective field that has long-time been…exclusive. So we, as an organization, are trying to be better about listening more and trying to save places that may have not been on our radar before.

 

And, the Neighborhood Incubator is this really cool project that we had no idea kind of what we were getting into…but last summer, we got a grant from the Knight Foundation. And it’s been incredible because we had 75 people come to this public meeting, so it was already a success. But then the really cool thing was, over half of those people had never been to a Historic Macon event. So it meant that we were now reaching people in neighborhoods that we weren’t ever able to assist.

 

So now, we have 25 people going through a neighborhood training institute, the Fanning Institute at UGA. And we’re going to empower those neighborhood leaders to help, not only preserve their neighborhoods, but also help with infrastructure and quality of life issues.

 

So, I think we’re trying to just expand our mission, our reach. But, we have a lot of ground to cover.

 

When we got to Macon, Macon was really hungry, almost desperate. I think even before we got to town, the community was desperate to a fault. Any business, any investor, any money that wanted to come to Macon, everyone would just sort of welcome and sort of bend over backwards to assist, for better or for worse. But now I think we can be a little pickier, so to speak, and be a little more intentional about the businesses and the activity, you know, what we’re investing in and who we’re recruiting.

 

I’m afraid, ‘cause even I was guilty of this, but I’m afraid that in ten years or maybe less, that Macon is going to be a victim of our own success. Like today, if I said, ‘We need to have rent restrictions,”…all of these proactive tools to put in place…we’re just…we’re not ready for those. But, the trick will be…when we are ready for those, will it be too late?

 

Like Knoxville, Knoxville now…just in the past six months, all of this has come to bare…affordable housing – workforce housing, not subsidized housing – for all types of people has become nonexistent close to Knoxville’s urban core.

 

But, I really do think that in ten or twenty years, it’s going to be a real issue here. But again, I don’t know the answers.

 

We all, we want it to be vibrant; we want it to be successful. But we can’t do that at the expense of the rest of our community.

 

In Macon, if you have an idea and you’re willing to put forth some effort and get engaged, this community will welcome you with open arms…whether it’s funding resources, mentorship, or just support. That’s been one of the cool things about Historic Macon: As far as I can tell, we can grow as much as we want. We want to match those needs, as much as the community needs us…I think that’s just incredible, the opportunities here.

 

We need to make sure we don’t forget why we’re successful…that preservation is a key component of that success.

 

I’m not a complicated person…I don’t have regrets. I don’t have time for regrets. But, also I don’t think there’s anything productive out of regrets.

 

My favorite movie when I was a kid was Stand By Me; it’s still one of my favorites. And I love The Goonies…anything that the Coen Brothers do.

 

My last meal was nothing special. I had breakfast at home with Conway. We usually share a bowl of cereal. And, this morning we had Life and a banana. And, he had a snack bar. And some coffee.”

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