Newton: Growing Smart

Community development, educational opportunities and resolve

New Urbanism jumped to the forefront last October when Metro Atlantans witnessed the opening of Atlantic Station.

But residents of Newton County, the fastest growing county in Georgia and seventh fastest in the nation, know that the concept of live, work, play isn’t just an idea for cities. Thanks to progressive thinking, collegial relationships between county officials and their city of Covington counterparts, and a place called The Center, Newton County may end up as a model of smart suburban growth that addresses planning and preservation rivaling anything downtown Atlanta has to offer.

“I see courage every day,” says Kay Lee, executive director of The Center, a community planning and preservation center funded by a number of private sources including The Arnold Fund, a local family foundation. Lee credits local officials, most lifelong residents of the county, with seeing the oncoming growth and looking for ways to accommodate it.

Lee says that like The Center itself, Newton County’s development philosophy isn’t dependent on any one politician, but is instead embedded in community consciousness. Sound development, she says, “relies on political will, people who give of their time, talent and treasure, and bright capable willing people working together. I’m hopeful. I see no reason not to be.”

Lee has reason to smile when she looks three blocks up the street from The Center toward downtown Covington. To anchor growth and give it a direction, Newton County focused on something already there: Covington square. Thanks to a master plan developed by award winning neighborhood planner Andres Duany, as well as input from citizens, business, civic and political leaders, the square has become a focal point of the community and has fueled a resurgence of civic will that radiates throughout the county, both in commercial and residential development.

Mayfield Hardware and other longtime commercial residents on the square have been joined by a variety of fresh businesses and restaurants. A recently constructed building on Church Street facing the square’s southeast corner is home to street level shops and restaurants and stunning two story lofts above. Priced in the low- to mid-$200,000s, the lofts achieved 70 percent occupancy prior to December.

Mayor Sam Ramsey, owner of Ramsey Furniture Company – a downtown Covington staple since 1919 – is pleased to see the redevelopment but has more pressing concerns. The city purchases natural gas and resells to citizens in Covington, Mansfield, Newborn and Oxford. Last October, Ramsey was faced with a $1.8 million gas bill, almost double the amount paid in October 2004.

“And we aren’t even in the cold months yet,” he says. “Everyone was up in arms about gasoline prices. Turns out we were worrying about the wrong thing.”

Ramsey is concerned about the 25 percent of the city’s customers who are already struggling to pay their bills. He looks to the state and federal governments for assistance. “We don’t have the resources to deal with this situation,” he says, “And now is not the time to be talking about tax cuts!”

Despite a square bustling with activity day and night, Aaron Varner, chairman of the Newton County Board of Commissioners, is cautious. “We have some good things going on,” he says. “But you have to stay on top of it because it can go the other way very fast.”

Varner points to the western portion of Newton County, an area that juts into neighboring Rockdale County, as a place where rampant residential growth in the late 1990s and early 2000s wreaked havoc on existing infrastructure. A 48.3 percent population jump in Newton from 1990 to 2000 caused subdivisions to spring up like mushrooms after a rainstorm, and some were just as unsightly. From 2000 to July 2004, the population leapt another 31.5 percent.

Lack of proper planning meant roads, schools and water systems were woefully overburdened. “We’d build a new school and once it opened, it was overcrowded,” Varner says. “My hat’s off to the board of education for doing that juggling act.”

Varner says rewriting outdated zoning ordinances has helped rein in some types of development, and the commissioners constantly monitor commercial development to ensure its quality. “There are still a lot of people who live in the western part of the county that have never been in downtown Covington,” he says. “I think that trend will begin to change as traffic [in Rockdale County] becomes more and more of an issue.”

Finding A Partner

Newton is partnering with Rockdale to fund an engineering concept for the Salem Road Corridor. Rockdale halted development along the corridor for a year in order to put in an overlay district with strict zoning ordinances. Varner says the Newton County board may opt to also put in an overlay district along Salem Road in order to guide commercial development for west Newton residents.

Impact fees on commercial and retail development help offset infrastructure needs and ease the tax burden on Newton County residents while a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) passed in March 2005 set aside a whopping $25 million, almost half the expected SPLOST take, for countywide and municipal road and bridge improvements. The SPLOST also provides funds to expand the county landfill, upgrade county facilities and public safety systems and acquire greenspace.

While the overdeveloped west shows what can happen without careful planning, Varner and his colleagues haven’t given up on it. In fact, The Center commissioned the Oak Hill charrette, the first charrette – a plan developed by means of a collaborative process involving interested parties – put together by the Metropolitan Design Studio, which is located in Clark’s Grove, a Traditional Neighborhood Design neighborhood in Covington.

The Metropolitan Design Studio is a working studio staffed by graduate students from the University of Georgia’s School of Environmental Design. The charrette focused on the intersection of Oak Hill Road and Georgia Highway 212, and developed a plan to create a village of mixed use, mixed income, mixed size buildings of character and identity.

“In Oak Hill, the county has enough land (200 to 300 acres) to make a statement about what they want development to look like,” Lee says. The Oak Hill charrette has become a model for community development in other areas of Newton County, especially the land in eastern Newton around the much-anticipated Georgia Perimeter College (GPC), a public two-year college that will serve 4,000 students.

Tentative plans call for plenty of greenspace, parking lots artfully placed to create a walking campus and mixed use development to give the area a village feel. “We hope the college will be the anchor for bigger and better things out there,” Varner says. “We feel we have a chance to do a better job of planning and implementing without a lot of the road blocks we have in the western part of the county. I think we’re just beginning to fathom the economic benefit that we will derive from that.”

A quality of life plus the addition of GPC further enhances Newton County’s standing as a haven of post-secondary education. Once GPC opens its doors in 2007, four colleges, including Oxford College of Emory University, DeKalb Technical College and a satellite campus of Troy University, will be located in the county.

The local school system, serving more than 17,000 students, is thrilled by the number of colleges choosing to make Newton County their home. The county opened its 12th elementary school, Rocky Plains Elementary, in 2005 and will open a third high school, Alcovy High School, in 2006. There are four middle schools and a successful alternative high school. The system has been an educational innovator in a number of areas including its school calendar.

Newton County was one of the first in Georgia to use the “balanced calendar,” a plan that takes two weeks from traditional summer vacation in order to offer strategically timed breaks for students and teachers. Dr. Stephen Whatley, the county’s associate superintendent for instruction, says the breaks are considered sacred. “They are not to be used for giving extra work or projects,” he explains. “Everyone comes back in a better frame of mind. Teachers are ready to teach and students are ready to learn.”

But there are always challenges. Though SAT scores have continued to rise and Newton is ranked among Georgia’s top-scoring counties, the number of students receiving free and reduced lunches – sometimes an indicator of potential problems – has also climbed to almost 50 percent. Three schools in the county remain on the “Needs Improvement” list under the provisions of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, though Whatley expects them to come off the list this year.

Luring Business

Community leaders eye the many educational opportunities as one way to lure business to Newton. The county recently acquired 300 acres of industrial land and is one of four members of a Joint Development Authority responsible for developing 1,500-acre Stanton Springs Technology Park located along Interstate 20 near the GPC site. Another plus: The runway at Covington Municipal Airport is in the process of expanding from 4,200 to 5,000 linear feet.

Time and again, Newton County citizens have demonstrated a commitment to community culture with their pocketbooks. The 2005 SPLOST has close to $6 million earmarked “recreation and cultural.”

Buncie Hay Lanners, Newton County Chamber of Commerce chairman, also wears the hat of executive director for the county’s arts association. She is rightfully proud that the Atlanta Symphony will make its 17th visit to Newton when members perform at Olive Swann Porter Hall, a recital hall on the campus of Newton County High School, in May.

“Our concert series grew out of their first visit,” Lanners says. The series has brought in such distinguished performers as pianist Awadagin Pratt, the late R&B legend Lou Rawls, country music artists The Forester Sisters and the Christmas ballet “The Nutcracker,” performed annually by the Covington Regional Ballet.

Seeking more diverse programming, and with enthusiastic community support, the arts association hopes to secure funding for a county civic center. SPLOST funds will provide $5 million toward the $11 million needed to build the center. “The remainder will come from grants or other sources of funding,” Lanners says. “But the SPLOST vote validated us.”

Newton County’s Recreation Commission has every reason to be proud; its numerous national awards attest to its savvy. In July 2005, along with Rockdale and Henry counties, it hosted the International Softball Association World Series at the Turner Lake Recreation Complex and other county owned parks.

“In the past recreation was considered a luxury,” says Tommy Hailey, director of the Newton County Recreation Commission. “Now it’s a necessity.” Thanks to impact fees, Hailey is working with a budget he hopes will allow him to look for additional park land in farflung areas of the county, near Mansfield in the east, and a large tract near GA 212 in the west to serve residents there.

The portrait of Newton County is far from complete, and as Commissioner Varner points out, diligence is required to keep from heading in the wrong direction. But attorney Frank Turner, Jr. is optimistic. Turner, a member of the development authority, treasurer of The Center and counsel to The Arnold Fund, says Newton County has something special going for it.

“We’re blessed with good bones,” he says, of the downtown square and the people working together to grow the community with care and thought. “From there we’ve made a good start.”

Categories: Metro Atlanta