Newton County: Creating A New Vision
Local planners balance preservation and development
Covington may not exactly be Mayberry, but residents here like to talk about feelings of hometown community and a slower paced life that makes Newton County special.
And there are places here that seem to be caught in time. It’s a look that has drawn a steady stream of production companies looking for a rural locale for such popular TV shows as “In the Heat of the Night” and the “The Dukes of Hazzard,” along with a host of movies.
While you can still find the rural South here, the reality is that this county, perched on the eastern edge of the Metro Atlanta area, is already undergoing tremendous change.
Surging, unregulated growth has already spilled over into western Newton around the Porterdale area, driven by a rapidly expanding Metro Atlanta area. That growth has pushed this once sleepy region to 11th place on the nation’s list of fastest growing counties.
That growth in particular has disturbed a great many residents who see their tranquil lives threatened by big box developments, subdivisions and – worst of all – endless traffic. While some residents are critical of officials for letting it happen, the age of the big box store has arrived in Newton. Home Depot and Wal-Mart have both opened two locations. More are on the way, but increasingly Newton is seeing a future built on its own terms.
“We are planning our future to be one that we want to see,” says John Boothby, president of the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce. “We feel as through Newton is a special and unique place that, while near the Metro Atlanta area, is not part of Metro Atlanta.”
While few are opposed to growth, the unpleasant and sometimes costly side effects of unregulated growth have weighed heavily on both citizens and local officials. Those feelings have translated into a level of action seldom seen in rapidly growing metro counties. The byword here is planning and creating a vision for Newton.
Officials from across the county joined together in The Leadership Collaborative, which meets regularly to discuss, argue and seek solutions to problems affecting the entire county. Fostered by the local Center for Community Preservation and Planning, “those bodies of government are not just acting on things individually that ultimately do affect everyone, but they are also beginning to think and plan together,” says center director Kay Lee. “It has been a long road.”
While the process has been far from perfect, it has fostered a level of cooperation unseen in other communities around the state. The county has come to grips with the challenges of growth and begun to develop solutions.
Those solutions include effects to preserve the elements that make Newton so attractive to newcomers, while encouraging more community friendly mixed-use development.
Leaders are faced with a county that has become almost entirely urban on the west, while remaining mostly rural to the east. Growth patterns resemble those in other metro area counties that have been overwhelmed by development.
“In working together they started realizing that those patterns aren’t necessarily going to allow us to remain a community in the way we know it,” Lee explains.
Longtime county commission chairman Aaron Varner agrees that the county and city governments such as Covington are working together as never before. “We realize that what affects one of us affects us all,” he adds.
A good example of the community worth preserving is Covington’s scenic downtown. Instead of empty storefronts and low-end business, the town square is surrounded by a mix of new boutiques and well established stores such as longtime fixture Ramsey Furniture. Several new restaurants offer dining, and visitors can sit a spell at Scoops, the new ice cream and coffee shop that occupies a corner space underneath the Lofts development.
City leaders have sought to encourage a mix of businesses downtown that will attract the growing local population, as well as tourists seeking a taste of small town America.
To make sure those businesses survive competition from big box stores along I-20, the town is fostering residential development. More than 1,100 new homes already have been permitted within the city, says planning and zoning director Lloyd Kerr.
“Changes in zoning ordinances are designed to encourage mixed use development within the city,” he explains. “It is not required but it allows that flexibility.”
All those new residents are forming the customer base needed to keep local businesses thriving.
“The health and vitality of this district relates to the type of residential development that we’ve had within proximity to the district,” says Josephine Kelly, director of Covington’s Main Street Program. “It’s wonderful to have an element of that destination for tourists, but you need those customers that are using the downtown district several times a week for either dining or shopping.”
To give them more reasons to come back, Covington is developing new downtown attractions, including the conversion of an unused but historic jail to a museum with $500,000 from Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) funding. Long a fixture in city history, the jail has held thieves, murderers, debtors and civil rights protestors.
“It’s not a museum about jails, but the cells on the top floor will be used as part of the museum and the gallows will be used as interpretative exhibits,” explains Newton’s Special Projects Director Cheryl Delk.
As soon as workmen complete the county’s new administrative building, the old facility next door will be razed to make way for a 100-room hotel and 200-seat conference center complex. The county retained Atlanta developer Noble Investment Group to spearhead this public-private partnership; the developer is expected to bring $9 million to the table for the hotel, along with $5 million in public funding.
“We are looking at probably another $5 to $6 million that will need to be spent,” says Buncie Hay Lanners, Newton County Arts Association director, who is spearheading the conference center project for the county. “Those numbers aren’t specific at this point because we’ve done plans, but the plans haven’t been honed.”
Once open, the new facility will draw small group meetings and increased numbers of visitors to the city – particularly business travelers. To help them get here, Covington has lengthened the runway at its airport to 5,500 feet to accommodate corporate jets. Plans also call for building a new Fixed Base Operation that could include additional amenities such as a restaurant and even car rental agency, as well as a construction facility for small airplanes.
“We really think this could be a gold mine for the city and county,” says Covington Mayor Sam Ramsey.
Mixed Use Takes Off
The kind of mixed use development officials want to see can be found at the end of a newly constructed parkway on the county’s eastern side. It leads to 1,600 now undeveloped acres that eventually will be home to one of Newton’s most anticipated projects. Stanton Springs Technology Park is the work of Technology Park Atlanta – which developed North Fulton’s highly successful Johns Creek area. While dirt has only recently been turned, officials hope the project will become a major employment center for the county.
“These activities are going to take us into the undeveloped land of the county which gives us a chance to carefully manage the way growth occurs there,” Boothby says. “It enables us to have both the convenience of being near Atlanta while developing something that is uniquely Newton County and not this growth that is coming out like a tide.”
Just one exit west on I-20, Mount Pleasant is also headed in the right direction. A made-to-order college town is planned to surround Georgia Perimeter College’s latest campus. (See related story, page 60.)
Plans call for live-work-play development featuring ground floor retail and commercial with office and loft apartments above. The Arnold Fund, a local family foundation, has also gained approval for a 750-unit housing development featuring condos, townhomes and single family residences in a New Urban inspired neighborhood designed to foster multiple use and a pedestrian friendly development.
Planners believe the traditional town center concept will attract buyers weary of look-alike suburban subdivisions. They also hope it marks a shift away from the sprawl that has plagued the county’s western section.
“This was the closest undeveloped interchange to Atlanta along I-20, and we were afraid that really bad development was on the march out here,” says Randy Vinson, a local planner and architect who works with the Arnold Fund. “So they purchased it several years ago, when it was available.”
The aim wasn’t to stop growth, “but they wanted it to be something that would be a little bit more pleasant to live in,” he adds.
Over the years, several master plans were commissioned, but the project never really gained traction until Georgia Perimeter College approached Newton officials about the possibility of locating a new campus in the county. Near the geographic center of the college’s service area, with easy access, the site seemed perfect for a new campus. The Arnold Fund agreed to donate 100 acres for the campus, which will eventually be home to more than 5,000 students. A 95,000-square-foot classroom building costing $23 million is already in use and a second facility, along with a proposed baseball stadium, is on the drawing boards.
“It provided the catalyst to create a town around,” Vinson says. “It’s really hard to just create a town from scratch out in the middle of nowhere and be able to attract somebody to come in and start building homes, but now I think with the college you do have that catalyst for beginning it.”
Growth has served the county well in attracting enhanced educational opportunities. Along with the GPC campus, the Oxford campus of Emory University is also planning expansions to serve its growing enrollment.
Broadened Tax Base
All this attention raises the hope among county officials that Newton can at last begin broadening its tax base. Conventional wisdom – coupled with experience – says residential development tends to consume more tax dollars than it generates. In fact, it takes the taxes generated from a $250,000 home to pay for just one child in the county’s school system, yet the average home price has only recently topped $200,000, local officials say.
Much the same can be said for industrial development. While Newton has excelled in bringing companies here, it has suffered from a lack of retail and the attendant tax revenues these businesses generate.
“I thought we had it made when we signed up all these industries, but then I realized that the tax incentives designed to get them to locate effectively wiped out much of the tax gains,” says Covington’s Ramsey.
Traditionally, Newton residents have spent most of their disposable income at retail establishments outside the county – just half the state average of $38,000. Many of those dollars have gone to retail in Rockdale or DeKalb Counties.
“We’re correcting that by having some shopping opportunities develop now such as a Wal-Mart and Home Depot,” Boothby says. “We think that will help collect some of the sales tax revenue that is leaking out there, but it will also help keep people here in Newton County to develop the feeling that ‘I’m a [Newton] county resident not a Rockdale County resident.’”
Locals think they can have it both ways, retaining the best of the old while forging ahead into the future.
“I think that charm and that old way of being that people are looking for is still going to be there,” says Covington City Manager Steve Horton. “We are going to have to merge and somehow tie all that together to what’s around us through our planning efforts and those kind of things; but I don’t think we are going to lose that, I really don’t.”
Covington (county seat), 13,856; Oxford, 2,214; Porterdale, 1,569; Newborn, 704; Mansfield, 503
Per capita income
Newton County, 4.9 percent; Georgia, 4.1 percent
Top 5 employers
Newton County Board of Education, 2,600; Newton Health System, 724; Pactiv Corporation, 601; Newton County Government, 600; C.R. Bard, Inc., 481
Georgia Dept. of Labor, U.S. Census Bureau, Covington/Newton County Chamber of Commerce