Josh Rogers knew he wanted Macon to be his home, even before he decided what major or job he would need to make that happen. As a student at Mercer University, he made connections and learned how to be a change-maker, launching a career journey that led him to NewTown Macon, for which he is now president and CEO.
Rogers, originally from Waycross, said going to Mercer was an “easy, obvious choice” for him. He was interested in attending a small liberal arts college, so his father — a high school guidance counselor — organized a college tour with several stops, the last being Mercer. Rogers had been using a checklist to evaluate the other institutions, but he didn’t feel the need to do that once he arrived at Mercer.
“The minute I stepped on campus, I was pretty much sold,” he said. “I knew I was in the right place.”
He started his undergraduate studies at Mercer in 2001 and quickly fell in love with the University and then Macon. His career path, however, was not as certain. He tried several majors, and in the end, he finished out the degree he had the most credits in — history with a concentration in Southern studies.
As a member of Mercer’s Student Government Association, he gained valuable insight into melding together the needs and wants of different groups as he worked with students and administrators.
“My experience with student government at Mercer was really formative. It was when I discovered that things could be different than they are, and if you want them to change, you should,” Rogers said.
When he graduated in 2005, he still wasn’t sure what he wanted to do for his career. But before long, Mercer connections opened doors for him.
As a student, Rogers had become acquainted with then-president Dr. Kirby Godsey and mentioned to him how much he loved downtown Macon. Dr. Godsey told him about a new organization he had started called NewTown Macon and connected him with its leadership. So, Rogers waited tables at a local restaurant during the day and volunteered at NewTown Macon at night, until NewTown eventually created an internship for him. Later, he became a full-time staff member directing special projects.
At the urging of former Mercer professor Dr. Michael Cass and wife Lynn Cass, an active Rotarian and co-founder of Macon Magazine, Rogers applied for a Rotary International scholarship that would fund graduate studies at an institution outside his hometown. So, he moved to England to study historic preservation at the University of York.
After the completion of his master’s degree, he resumed his work with NewTown Macon, followed by a couple years working with the College Hill Corridor neighborhood revitalization project and five years as executive director of the Historic Macon Foundation. At the latter, he proved himself and learned how to run a nonprofit from scratch, he said. For the past 10 years, he has served as CEO and president of NewTown Macon. Much of his work there aims to simultaneously meet the needs of Macon and Mercer.
“At NewTown, the job is to understand the community’s needs and visions for the future and figure out how to give the decision-makers the wins they need to implement the (vision),” Rogers said. “Mercer has demonstrated that level of leadership in the community for decades. Mercer’s win is not Macon’s loss. Mercer is always making decisions that are win-win. That’s what I’ve tried to bring to NewTown.
“A lot of ‘town-gown’ relationships between communities and universities are very adversarial. Mercer has demonstrated for a long time that there doesn’t have to be a loser. Mercer Village is a fabulous example of that.”
NewTown Macon takes a unique, local-based approach to development, Rogers said. The organization uses all local developers, which contributes to a continuous cycle of local money circulating in the city and boosting its economy.
“Local people are benefitting from the changes, and that makes all the difference,” he said. “All the people in Central Georgia know how amazing downtown Macon is, so the next thing is sharing that with the world and getting them here.”
Rogers considers the creation of downtown lofts to be one of NewTown Macon’s biggest successes. In addition, the city center is now full of family-operated businesses, with storefront occupancy having increased from 35% to 85%. There’s even a hotel downtown now — Hotel Forty Five.
“I had a dream of all the storefronts full and the buildings fixed, and seeing it come true is better than I ever believed,” Rogers said. “I never imagined all the cool businesses that people would want to start and how special it would be to local people. We have a city that has challenges with income and poverty, especially along lines of race. Through revitalization, we have been able to create opportunities to build the wealth of women and people of color.”
Rogers is also proud of the Macon Action Plan and Downtown Challenge grant program, which have involved the community in the city’s revitalization.
Rogers said he is grateful for the work he does with NewTown Macon and for the fact that his Mercer professors, mentors and family get to see the transformation along with him. It’s astounding how much has changed in downtown Macon over the past decade.
“We have the opportunity to be a truly world class city, maybe the only place in the world that’s revitalized cooperatively — America’s most integrated revitalization,” Rogers said. “Long term, that’s what I would hope for most. America desegregated 70 years ago, and (the country) has not yet integrated. I hope we can be a demonstration of how people can get along, and that the way to be successful is to build across the lines that divide that.”