But Bridge wanted more things to do in his spare time, so he went house hunting last spring in Macon. When his real estate agent showed him a rehabilitated home on Maple Street in the city's historic Beall's Hill neighborhood, the two-bedroom, 1 bath house had everything Bridge wanted.
"There's more community here," Bridge said. "There's more downtown action. I actually know my neighbors now. I was just looking (at houses) around town, and they were reworking this house. I saw it had a lot of potential, and I said, 'I can do that.'"
Bridge's story is one of many that the combined partnership of Historic Macon, the College Hill Alliance, Historic Hills and Heights (an existing partnership between the city and the College Hill Alliance), the city and Mercer University is trying to repeat.
The partnership has put together the nation's most active neighborhood revitalization revolving fund in the nation, said Josh Rogers, director of Historic Macon.
That's not Rogers' opinion. It's a fact that was announced at the recent convention for Revolving Fund Directors of America at the National Preservation Conference.
"We were at the National Trust Conference, and we learned we have the most active revolving fund in the nation," Rogers said. "Somehow, working here in this current economy, with an operating budget of only $300,000, we were able to do it with all volunteer hours and all with cooperation with other nonprofits. We've changed the neighborhood on a scale we didn't think was possible."
It's a scale that's much bigger than originally envisioned, said Pat Madison, executive director of the College Hill Alliance.
When the city was re-establishing the Beall's Hill project, officials asked that if the College Hill Alliance took over, could it build three or four houses a year, Madison said.
"Once we looked at the neighborhood, we realized the scale would have to be much larger," he said. "It needed to be 12 to 15 houses a year."
Madison said the project needed to have that many houses per year if it would ever be self-sustaining and attract commercial interest.
Not having the resources to do so much himself, Madison got together a year ago with Rogers, whose agency is rehabbing the historical homes of the area.
Putting together a revolving fund with money already available for rehab projects, funds from Historic Hills and Heights, money from the College Hill Alliance's budget, grant money from the Knight Foundation and net proceeds from the sale of a vacant duplex in the area, the two were able to put together more than $1 million to start the revolving fund.
The partnership picked up where the discontinued Beall's Hill Development Corp. left off, acquiring properties in the neighborhood and either rehabbing homes with historical roots or building new houses on empty lots that conform to the style of the neighborhood.
Through the end of October, the partnership has built five new homes and rehabilitated six others, investing nearly $1.4 million into the project. Four of those homes have been sold, and two more are under contract to be sold, Madison said.
None of the other cities that participated in the National Preservation Conference has come close to that level of production, Madison said.
"There are so many of those funds that are not active now or are operating at a deficit," he said. "You can't depend on a charitable foundation or the government to prop up non-productive housing efforts. We're functioning like a private development company. Our goal is to sell more than what we're building to generate profit. We're generating enough sufficient revenue to keep it going."
Macon Mayor Robert Reichert said he's extremely pleased to see how well things have been going in Beall's Hill.
"They've been working hard to build houses and rehab the houses that can be rehabbed," Reichert said. "There's every reason for them to be proud of what they have done."
Reichert said the location of Beall's Hill is a key factor to its success, given the neighborhood's proximity to Mercer, downtown, College Hill, Tattnall Square Park and other amenities.
"There's an increasing trend in the nation toward new urbanism,"' Reichert said. "People don't want to live on a house with 3 acres on the outskirts of town. ... This program offers young professionals a house in the $100,000 to $150,000 range. The program has been well thought out and well executed."
Madison said the partnership ultimately wants to create about 60 new or refurbished homes within the 30-square-block neighborhood.
Reichert and Madison said the Beall's Hill project has been a winner all the way around. It offers affordable new or refurbished homes to local families. It revitalizes the neighborhood, making it safer by attracting more residents. And it generates tax revenue for the city among properties that were abandoned.
Rogers noted that it costs the city $20,000 to demolish a blighted home, and all that's left is an empty lot. By turning over those decaying properties to Historic Macon, the properties are rehabilitated and generate tax revenue in addition to saving the city demolition and cleanup costs.
Historic Macon has done a top-notch job with rehabbing the blighted homes, Bridge said.
Bridge said he didn't see the "before" photos of his house until after he bought it and moved in.
"It was pretty shocking," he said.
Madison and Rogers said they hoped to maintain a level of building or refurbishing 12 to 15 homes each year, with the idea that the project eventually will become self-sufficient and can be turned over to a private developer. They would then move on to another neighborhood in Macon.
In June, the Macon City Council initially cut the $75,000 it budgeted for Historic Hills and Heights for fiscal 2010, until Reichert persuaded the council to return the money. Some council members at the time had worried that the project would go on indefinitely, while others said they thought the city was concentrating too much of its resources on one part of town.
As he said in June, Reichert reiterated that building only a few houses in one neighborhood would have little effect on its own.
"Part of its success is that we're concentrating our efforts," he said. "You can't have one house in east Macon, one in Beall's Hill, one in Village Green, one in Unionville and expect change. It's got to be a focused effort. Once we get it going, we can turn our attention to other neighborhoods."
Reichert noted that the city also has other ongoing projects in other parts of Macon, such as renovations in Tindall Heights and the demolition of blighted homes in east Macon. He said the city also is applying for Hope VI grant money to pay for other projects around town.
Rogers said it's now more cost-effective for a Macon resident to buy a home in the neighborhood rather than rent somewhere else, thanks to local, state and federal incentives.
Rogers said someone earning $28,000 a year could buy a home currently for sale on Elm Street that's listed for $107,500. With city and state tax incentives and other programs, that person could end up paying about $467 per month for the house when all of the incentive savings are factored in.
"The national housing market has changed drastically over the last 50 years," he said. "Even in spite of ourselves, people still want to live downtown. Now, with the incentives available, it's cheaper than renting."