Erin Keller fell in love with Mercer University first, and then she fell in love with Macon. From a college student to a professional in Macon, she’s seen the downtown area come a long way. As NewTown Macon’s chief of staff and vice president for development, she is part of a team that is continuing to revitalize and reimagine the city center.
Keller, originally from LaPlace, Louisiana, played on Mercer’s women’s basketball team and graduated in 2008 with a communications degree.
“When I came for my official visit as a senior in high school, it was 15 minutes there, and I knew it was where I wanted to be,” she said. “I wanted to have extracurricular opportunities where I wasn’t just defined as a student-athlete. Mercer gave me that. My time at Mercer offered me the best of both worlds, an all-around college experience that allowed me to play at the collegiate level and prepared me for life after graduation.”
Following graduation, Keller went to Valdosta State to pursue a master’s degree in higher education leadership and took a graduate assistantship on the women’s basketball team. She thought she wanted a career coaching basketball, but she quickly realized that wasn’t the path for her.
After completing her graduate degree, a job opening brought her back to Mercer and Macon. She served as an admissions counselor for three years and coordinator of alumni programs for one year, and then a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity came calling.
Mercer alumnus Josh Rogers, president and CEO of NewTown Macon, wanted to recruit Keller for a position leading capital campaigns and managing fundraisers, grants and donor relations. She accepted and began that role with NewTown Macon in July 2014.
“It was something different, a new challenge. It was an opportunity that was completely unknown,” Keller said. “It’s different when someone looks at you and says, ‘You’re my first option’ — when someone believes in you more than you believe in yourself.”
When Keller was a Mercer student, downtown Macon was deserted and didn’t have much to offer besides nightlife, she said. But then, the College Hill Alliance — an organization funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation that was dedicated to creating positive change along a two-mile stretch between Mercer’s campus and downtown — lit a spark of hope and change that spread through Macon.
“It was the launch pad,” she said. “There was a plan; there was hope; there were resources. It gave people a reason to believe that the impossible was possible because you saw change. That momentum had Maconites believing revitalizing downtown was possible.”
Organizations like NewTown Macon, the Peyton Anderson Foundation, the Knight Foundation, the Urban Development Authority and dedicated residents built on existing efforts to save the city center. Much of the change has been locally led and charged, and that is Macon’s “super power,” Keller said.
“NewTown has expanded and evolved to be the organization that is known to figure out issues. If it’s going to benefit downtown, we want to figure out a solution,” she said. “As Macon has grown, it’s really embraced its authenticity.”
Today, Keller sometimes feels like she needs to pinch herself when walking downtown. It’s now a vibrant area where people can live, work, play and walk in between. She never dreamed the area would become home to businesses like Hotel Forty Five and The Woodward Hotel, and she’s proud to be part of an organization that has supported such ventures and a place that demonstrates unparalleled civic pride.
Keller is on a team that’s “changing the hearts and minds of people who think that downtown Macon is dead,” she said. “I love getting to do this type of work with people that are genuinely passionate about the change that we want to see and that we want to make. Some of the things that we’re doing now will change the downtown area for years to come.”
Keller’s work allows her to continue to be involved in Mercer from afar, while being involved in projects that could be of impact for generations.
“Because I love Mercer, I fell in love with Macon. It’s kind of this symbiotic relationship: What’s good for Macon is good for Mercer, and what’s good for Mercer is good for Macon,” she said. “A lot of the things that are going on in Macon have to do a lot with Mercerians. That speaks to the impact of a Mercer education. Macon embraces youthful leadership and several (leaders) are Mercerians who are shifting the trajectory of our city through creativity, innovation and compassion. I’m just honored to be among a great group of Mercerians committed to good-doing.”
Feature photo of Erin Keller by Maryann Bates.