Macon’s bodacious bet on itself: An amphitheater on a fading side of town

The $45 million, 12,000-capacity venue sets the stage for economic rebirth in an unlikely locale
Macon's new Atrium Health Amphitheater, one of the largest amphitheaters in Georgia, is set to open Sunday on a tract adjacent to the Macon Mall. (Hyosub Shin /



Macon's new Atrium Health Amphitheater, one of the largest amphitheaters in Georgia, is set to open Sunday on a tract adjacent to the Macon Mall. (Hyosub Shin /

MACON — In a place famous for its homegrown music legends, for launching to stardom the likes of Little Richard, Otis Redding and the Allman Brothers, it should come as no surprise that civic leaders here are again summoning the powers of this city’s melodic leanings.

This time in the form of a $45 million venue — a gleaming, 12,000-capacity amphitheater — nestled in an unlikely locale: the repurposed parking lot of a foundering shopping center.

The so-dubbed Atrium Health Amphitheater opens at the Macon Mall site Sunday with concerts by Lynyrd Skynyrd and ZZ Top.

The massive, bat-winged structure juts skyward along U.S. 80. It lies within easy earshot of the sprawling edifice that was once home to Sears, Macy’s and JCPenney. The leading edge of its 330-foot-wide rooftop subtly forms a letter “M” in a nod to Macon.

The new arena is one of the two largest of its kind in the state. It is the most ambitious entertainment hall to be built in Middle Georgia since 1968, when the Macon Coliseum opened and its first singing act was James Brown.

The bond-funded amphitheater was the brainchild of Mayor Lester Miller.

Sleek and angular, it lords, spaceship-like, over the horizon, bounded by the wooded bank of Rocky Creek. Before, the lone architectural marvel in that low-lying strip of highway was a row of 100-yard-long, open-air, steel-framed sheds at the Macon State Farmers Market.

Miller, an attorney raised on the city’s southwest side, is fond of the area, which he said “needed revitalization.”

A side view of the new Atrium Health Amphitheater in Macon. The 12,000-capacity amphitheater is among the largest in Georgia. (Hyosub Shin /


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He said local government over the years has contributed to the mall area’s decline “by not focusing resources” there.

Whatever the reasons for the drop-off — economic factors, online business forces, the city’s 25% poverty rate — a wide swath of Macon’s southerly side has been vacated by big-box retailers and other commerce.

Eight years ago, business owner David Murdock bought a Christian bookstore-turned-church and renovated it into a workspace to produce promotional merchandise and apparel. The amphitheater is now its next-door neighbor.

“Everything had left or was leaving,” Murdock said of the economic climate when his company moved in.

He and business partner David Barwick, who run the Apparel Authority, said the building cost them half what the previous owner paid.

Murdock hopes the amphitheater is “the spark” that attracts other merchants.

Barwick believes downtown Macon’s revival in recent years has shown that the city’s core is a safe place to dine, shop and partake of nightlife. He thinks the city’s investment in the west side, with the amphitheater, will spur similar success.

“There’ll be less and less naysayers when they see what’s going on and the improvements,” Barwick said.

Said Murdock: “To bring business back, you have to change the perception first. I think that perception is being changed in a very, very powerful way to the positive.”

‘Restoring hope’

Officials say that already real estate prices in the area have ticked up.

Just northeast of the amphitheater, property records show the vacant shell of a Chuck E. Cheese pizza palace, which closed during the pandemic and never reopened, had as recently as 2022 been valued at about $680,000. In the wake of the amphitheater announcement, it is valued at $1.1 million.

One thing working in the amphitheater’s favor is its geography. Macon and Bibb County have a combined population of about 160,000. Nearly a quarter-million more people live within half an hour’s drive of the city.

Officials hope to draw concertgoers from as far south as the Florida line, as far west as eastern Alabama and northerly into Henry County. The place has a viable chance to be the “Georgia stop” for popular acts. Hometown country star Jason Aldean has already sold out an October concert.

The city’s new entertainment venue sits at a midpoint between I-75 and the I-475 bypass, 2 miles from each freeway.

An aerial view of the new Atrium Health Amphitheater in Macon, showing Eisenhower Parkway, also known as U.S. 80, in the far background. (Hyosub Shin /


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Half a century ago, that 4-mile stretch of real estate surrounding Eisenhower Parkway was the region’s commercial mecca, a town square for trade. It was home to two malls: Westgate Shopping Center and, a mile or so west, the $100 million, 100-plus-store Macon Mall. The latter, a two-story, 13-acre colossus, opened to much fanfare in July 1975. Major leaguer Ralph “Road Runner” Garr, at the tail end of his career with the Atlanta Braves, showed up to sign autographs.

In the decades that followed, shoppers from upward of 30 counties flocked to what was a retail riviera. That strip of Eisenhower was the place to shop for new cars and new clothes. It was an avenue that, for a time, included a Wilson’s catalog showroom, an S&H Green Stamps store, the discount emporiums of Kmart and Zayre, two multiplex movie theaters and, nearby, a Krispy Kreme doughnut factory.

More recently, out toward the I-475 bypass and Middle Georgia State University, a retail development known as Eisenhower Crossing was spawned in 2001. That shopping center featured a Target, an Old Navy, a Marshall’s, a Dick’s Sporting Goods and a Michaels, all of which have since moved to another part of town or, in the case of Target, closed. The center is still open, but now anchored by Best Buy, a Kroger and a string of smaller retailers. There’s a Sam’s Club just up the road.

A new mall and other developments on Macon’s tonier north side have siphoned off many of the Eisenhower area’s former customers.

In the fall of 2020, as Miller was preparing to take the reins as mayor, he was also mulling where to put the amphitheater.

On a fact-finding trip with other Maconites to the Fayetteville Amphitheater, where a knock-off of the rock band Journey was playing, Miller asked the head of the Macon-Bibb County Urban Development Authority, Alex Morrison, for his input.

The mayor wanted to know where an amphitheater would make the biggest impact on the 200-year-old city: At the Eisenhower mall location or in downtown?

Morrison, without hesitation, said the mall.

“This,” Morrison would later say, “is about restoring hope for the people of this neighborhood.”

‘A louder speaker’

Land for the amphitheater, worth an estimated $1.4 million and adjacent to what was once parking for Parisian and Dillard’s, was donated by the mall to the Development Authority.

Other space inside the mall, where some retail outlets remain, now houses county offices. Most notably, in what was once a Belk department store, the city has built what it boasts is the world’s largest indoor pickleball facility. The courts have received glowing reviews.

Morrison, who is also the county’s director of planning and public spaces, sees the amphitheater project as a chance to “regenerate from within” and also to trumpet a tale of rebirth.

“I think this is part of Macon building a louder speaker to tell the story,” he said.

That tale could go a long way toward changing what is at least a perception of Macon as crime-plagued and unsafe. New life there may afford the city a fresh point of pride and become a gathering place in a spot that had seemingly been given up on.

A view looking west at the new Atrium Health Amphitheater in Macon. The adjacent Macon Mall can be seen in the background. (Hyosub Shin /


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But it didn’t help that in August 2021, a month before plans for the amphitheater were unveiled, a 17-year-old boy was shot to death at the mall during what cops have said was a clash over a stolen pistol. Though it was believed to be the first-ever shooting inside the mall, the incident fueled long-simmering sentiments that it was a place to avoid.

More broadly, violent crime has hit the city hard in the past half-decade. During a four-year span beginning in 2020, 215 people were victims of homicide — one more than in the previous nine years combined.

The numbers followed a national trend that surged upward around the time of the coronavirus pandemic.

When plans for the mall-area redevelopment were announced in September 2021, comments on local news sites’ social media feeds ranged from “better hire lots of security” and “they should’ve built that son of a gun somewhere else” to “give it a chance” and “if y’all don’t like it, don’t come.”

Now there is talk of a hotel going up on the property soon.

“I think this area is going to be very unique in the things we attract,” the mayor said.

“It’s a Macon story,” he added. “Music is very uniting, no matter what genre you like. And this gets us back one step closer to our musical heritage.”

He said developments around the amphitheater and, across town, an impending official “national park” designation for the Ocmulgee Mounds National Historic Park have generated a statewide buzz about the city. “We’re back on the map, back in the game, and it’s positive,” Miller said. “People are talking about Macon in a positive way.”

‘A huge game-changer’

One afternoon in mid-March, the amphitheater was opened to select locals for a sneak peek. The mayor arrived hours early. He was nervous.

“I feel like a kid about to play my first ballgame,” Miller said.

He showed off the venue’s amenities, including private suites that overlook a manicured zoysia lawn with room for 6,000 people. Then he took the stage and greeted 1,000 or so of the evening’s invitees.

“This is gonna be a great venture,” he said, “for all of us.”

Macon Mayor Lester Miller at a preview opening of the city's new Atrium Health Amphitheater. (Courtesy of Macon-Bibb County, by Matt Odom.)

Credit: Matt Odom

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Credit: Matt Odom

In the crowd, a spectator named Tinna Davis said she was wowed when she walked through the gates.

“It puts your mind somewhere else, like some of the theme parks in Florida,” Davis said. “It’s almost like reviving (the city) in a sense.”

Another guest, Jim Crisp, the retired longtime artistic director of Theatre Macon, declared the venue “visionary.”

“I think it’s a huge game-changer for Macon. … This is gonna be an economic driver for this whole part of Macon,” Crisp said.

County Commissioner Bill Howell, who grew up in southwest Macon’s Bloomfield neighborhood, has seen the mall area’s rise and fall. He was on hand for the pre-opening, and he too mentioned downtown’s resurrection and wondered if it might be repeatable on the west side.

“All the naysayers said, ‘It’ll never work. I don’t know why you’re spending money downtown,’” Howell said. “And look at downtown. And now look here.”

Sunday’s inaugural show will not be the first time a big-name act has performed on Macon Mall property.

In February 1997, the then-21-year-old mall celebrated an ambitious $50 million expansion that added an eastern wing. The addition was home to a sparkling carousel and retail giants Dillard’s and Parisian.

The star of that grand opening was country sensation Billy Ray Cyrus, five years post-”Achy Breaky Heart.” Cyrus, dressed in white-washed jeans and Reebok high-tops, took to the microphone and belted out an ode to commerce: “Y’all ready to go shoppin’?”

Staged in front of a cookie shop maybe 75 yards from where the amphitheater now sits, Cyrus, guitar in tow, then crooned “Amazing Grace” followed by his megahit.

Parisian and Dillard’s closed a decade later. In 2011, the mall’s new wing met the wrecking ball. And the space sat empty, till now.

Will locals and others now be drawn back to that scene to be entertained?

Macon is wagering they will. And considering the emptiness in that once-thriving corridor, it may not be much of a gamble.

As Miller, the mayor, put it, “We always bet on ourselves.”