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Newton County: Past Meets Future

Community Asset: Ralph Staffins, president of the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce

Community Asset: Ralph Staffins, president of the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce

Koko Hunt

Newton County, on the eastern edge of Metro Atlanta, is chock-full of history, including quaint downtowns and beautiful homes. But that tie to the past hasn’t kept county leaders from looking forward, with a huge investment in bioscience and a commitment to Georgia’s most glamorous profession – film and television.

In one of the largest economic development projects in the state, Shire Pharmaceuticals has nearly completed its massive plant in Stanton Springs just outside Covington.

“As we’ve come out of the recession, that has helped our economy turn around pretty significantly,” says Ralph Staffins, president of the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce.

The $1.2-billion state-of-the-art factory will produce blood-based treatments and include operations supporting plasma fractionation, purification, fill-finish and a testing lab. The facility was initially owned by Baxter spinoff Baxalta Inc., which was acquired by Shire in a $32-billion merger this past June.

Those name changes haven’t slowed the development of the plant, which is almost finished. The company is also more than halfway along in its hiring goal of 1,600 workers. When it’s complete, both Newton and the region will enjoy a massive infusion of economic development spurred by the company and the paychecks it issues to its growing workforce.

“They’re a huge asset to our community,” says Staffins. “People from all over work there, but we have a good many from Newton County employed. It was the biggest project investment-wise in the history of the state.”

Finding the right location and ensuring a well-educated workforce were critical factors in the company’s decision to set up shop in Newton County.

To provide that essential workforce, the state built a new Bioscience Training Center just across the street from the Shire plant. The campus with its ultramodern design is busy training workers for the new facility.

“So they [company leaders] came to Georgia a number of times, and it was over a couple of years as they were planning and evaluating the market,” says Rodger Brown, executive director of marketing and strategic media for Georgia Quick Start, the state’s workforce training program. “Georgia offered them this really great site location, and part of the incentive package was that Georgia would build a bioscience training center and have some dedicated space to support the company.”

The state also sees the training center as an asset to be leveraged to attract other companies within the bioscience industry. Center faculty members are drawn from the Quick Start program and the state’s technical colleges. Each company that uses the facility is able to bring its own proprietary training programs and get employees through them in a dedicated environment.

“The governor wanted to make sure it had sufficient additional flexible space that we would be able to adapt to any future additional bio-related companies that wanted to locate in the state,” says Brown. “The front-of-mind concept was to build a facility that could be equipped with the kinds of equipment and components and systems and technology that Baxter would be using over in the plant. The trainees would get real hands-on experience.”

The Bioscience Training Center was essential for Shire, since the community lacked the critical mass of potential employees trained in this very technical field.

The center is outfitted with the same kinds of equipment workers will be using in the plant itself. The training experience is very much like the actual job. In fact, the center worked closely with the company’s engineers in setting up technology and labs, according to Brown.

“It’s a very effective way to support a company that’s going to be processing a lot of candidates doing pre-employment assessment,” says Brown. “You would assess the applicants to see their skills and capabilities. Once hired, they would have the job specific training.”

The Newton County facility is now a model for a similar advanced manufacturing training center slated to be built at a mega site near Savannah.


Education Essentials

A new training center isn’t the only way the county is ensuring a ready workforce. Workforce development has become a big focus for officials and business leaders. The Newton County School System works closely with Georgia Piedmont Technical College (GPTC) to train the next generation of workers for jobs in the area. In fact, the GPTC helped fund the Newton College and Career Academy, a K-12 public school, and offers dual enrollment programs through the public schools in areas including the high-demand field of nursing.

In addition to offering programs that include business, nursing, hospitality and law enforcement, the college has zeroed in on newer areas such as film and television production. The county has long attracted Hollywood productions that began with the classic In the Heat of the Night series and continues today with titles such as the long-running The Vampire Diaries and Sleepy Hollow, which moved to the area when North Carolina cut its film tax credits. A $110-million, 700,000-square-foot film and TV studio planned for Covington is currently under review. Three Rings Studios has submitted plans for the production facility scheduled to open next year.

“The key to attracting new business to a given county or region is providing quality education,” says GPTC President Dr. Jabari Simama. “When industry wants to move to a particular area, it looks at the quality of education. So the fact that we’re working so closely with the Newton County career academy, we believe we are helping to create a K-12 educational program that is attractive to businesses that want to move here.”

The Newton campus is now offering more than 45 degree and certificate programs. In addition, 66 different businesses received a total of 85,000 hours of customized training for their employees.

The area’s growing number of hotels and restaurants led to the launch of a hospitality program by the college to help push economic development in that area, Simama says.

The chamber has also recently launched a program to ensure that industries and educational institutions are connected, and “each of them knows the other’s needs so that we can supply workforce both for today and the future,” says Staffins.

Among these initiatives under development is a partnership between GPTC and local companies to create an apprenticeship program based on a popular German model. This program would allow students to get training both from the college and on the job at one of the participating companies. The chamber hopes it would be a way to create a steady stream of workers for local firms.

“We believe that will create a workforce that’s ready to go to work much sooner and faster and be better employees of these industries,” explains Staffins.


A Firm Foundation

Aside from the growing industrial sector in Newton, one of the best examples of the upturn is downtown Covington. The city, which was filled with empty storefronts after the recession hit, is now bustling. It’s hard to find an empty space these days, and as soon as one becomes available it’s quickly filled, according to Velinda Hardy, Main Street director. “The moment someone retires or relocates or consolidates their business with someone else, those spaces get picked up quickly,” she says. “That’s the beauty of what we have going on here.”

“We had to fall back on our foundational assets in this community,” says Mayor Ronnie Johnston. “We already had a decent base of manufacturing. There was some uniqueness about not only the city of Covington, but Newton County that gave us some opportunities to compete and really focus on trying to create an environment that would be attractive for people to come live and work.”

One of those assets is the city’s classic small-town look and feel, which has attracted a growing number of film productions that have brought people, money and a bit of fame to the area. There’s even a local company, Vampire Stalkers, that conducts tours of The Vampire Diaries locations.

“We started focusing on improving our area,” says Johnston. “We had this great little history. We had a great foundation. Covington is very strong from not only a financial standpoint. It survived the whole downturn, and we didn’t have to increase taxes or lay people off. We used that to continue moving forward, really paying attention to everything from our environment to walking trails and biking trails to put us in a good position to be able to compete from an environment standpoint.”

The result is a downtown that brings out not just locals, but tourists from the region and even other countries.


College Credentials

Just outside Covington is the quaint and historic town of Oxford. It’s best known as the original home of Emory University, founded in 1836. While the university later opened a campus in Atlanta, it has maintained its traditional liberal arts two-year institution here as well.

Oxford College of Emory University is the dominant business in town. Out of the city’s 2,100 inhabitants, nearly 1,000 are students. Last year the biggest dose of economic activity came with the construction of a $30-million science building on the historic campus. Not only that, the only restaurant in town is at the college.

“When I go out to lunch, I got the college dining hall or I go to one of the chain restaurants in Covington,” says City Manager Bob Schwartz.

“The other advantage of being a college town is you have the benefit of things like the library, the concerts and drama and things that occur on the campus,” observes Oxford Mayor Jerry Roseberry. “The public is invited to many of those, and we also have an agreement with the college where they come to city hall and provide a series of free lectures of interest to the general public.”

The college is diverse, with students from throughout the country and other nations as well. They are attracted to Oxford as a place that emphasizes teaching and the opportunity to participate in activities outside the classroom. Many students work with local social service and educational agencies, and some even intern at city hall.

“We invest the majority of our resources in the education of students,” says Stephen Bowen, who recently retired as dean of the college. “Scholarship is important to all of our faculty, but it’s not the primary mission of the college.”

In a small community like Oxford, everyone gets to know each other. “So there’s a real strong sense of community,” he explains. “The students who come to Oxford are ones who want to be part of the community rather than being anonymous as they would be at a great state university.”

In recent years, the city has been working to make Oxford a little less dependent on the college. The city is working to set up a downtown development authority to help foster new businesses. A restaurant and even a small store would fit into the community well, according to Roseberry.


Mill Town 2.0

History abounds in Newton County, and one community that has capitalized on its heritage is the mill town of Porterdale. Situated along the Yellow River, it was long dominated by the mills that still line its banks.

The Bibb Manufacturing Co. operated the state’s largest twine mill up until the end of World War II. The mill operated the area’s only hospital and recreation programs and built hundreds of cottages for mill employees. It was the classic Southern mill village. When it left, there was little else to keep people in town.

All that has changed. Walk along Porterdale’s small main street and through neighborhoods filled with neatly maintained and newly renovated historic homes, and you’re seeing a village not so different than it was in the early years of the last century.

“It really went down terribly after the closing of the mill, and it was just like it was a lost soul,” says Mayor Arline Chapman. “When [developer] Walter Davis renovated the mill into the lofts, that was the catalyst for the change.”

Chapman moved to Porterdale to live in one of the lofts that has resurrected the old mill. She didn’t know much about the community, but soon got involved – first as a member of the city council and now as the village’s chief executive.

In fact, she was part of a wave of newcomers who have moved into town. Some rented the lofts while others have bought and renovated the quaint mill homes that once housed workers. Those new residents started a campaign for more city amenities. That led to the creation of a series of parks through town. More recently the old gym – which fell victim to a fire – was converted into an outdoor meeting and event venue.

“Over the last few years the [Porterdale] leadership team has embraced the importance of its history and preserving that through adaptive reuse,” says Main Street Director Josephine Kelly. The village recently adopted historic preservation ordinances to preserve the historic downtown and its large stock of older homes, she adds.

Porterdale has also gotten in on the film boom. With a grant from the Georgia Council for the Arts, the village launched a film festival that includes independent productions and public lectures by filmmakers.

For Newton County residents, the good times are clearly back. This is a place that has become a magnet for both people and business.


 

LOCAL FLAVOR

 

Shall We Dance?: When local developers cite the reasons for success in luring companies to Newton County, they talk about workforce, sure, but they often follow that up with the arts. From painting to theater to dance to choral groups, Newton County has become a mecca for artists.

Students drive from as far away as Athens for the region’s only pre-professional ballet company, the Covington Regional Ballet. Parents bring kids from Madison to participate in the Oxford Singers (no relation to the college).

“It’s kind of shocking in a way for a community of our size to have become an arts hub,” says Buncie Lanners, executive director of the Arts Association of Newton County. “We’re now drawing participants from an eight-county area with over 50 schools represented in our educational programming.”

The Arts Association in Newton County was recently honored by the Georgia House of Representatives for providing the arts to underserved communities. It’s just one of the many arts companies in Covington that have been fed by the rebounding growth in population.

The arts got a boost recently with the renovation and expansion of the Porter Performing Arts Center. The 30-year-old structure benefited from $5 million in SPLOST funds.

“We are very excited that this facility will be a true performing arts facility,” says Lanners.

The acoustics have gotten an expert upgrade, and dressing rooms – once just small closets – are now big enough to accommodate large groups such as the 100-member singing groups that will be using the facility.

“These are kids that are getting top- notch arts education,” she says. “So we now have the facilities [so] that we will be able to present these types of productions.” – Randy Southerland

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