Newton County: People, Partnership, Progress

It's go time for big business and smart growth.

A boom town needs more than room to grow. A partnership-driven support system coupled with responsive infrastructure improvements are key to maintaining the gains and limiting the growing pains. That combo effort is setting the stage for big things in Newton County.

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Boom Town: Serra Hall, executive director of Newton County Industrial Development Authority; photo Ryan Johnson.

“Newton County has become recognized as a ‘boom town’ with $6.9 billion announced and over 9,000 quality jobs committed in the last two years,” says Serra Hall, executive director of Newton County Industrial Development Authority (NCIDA), located in the county seat of Covington.

Trailblazing companies such as Archer Aviation, Absolics, Rivian Automotive, Cinelease Studios-Three Ring and Ascend Elements have helped the county and its citizens reap the rewards of the impressive growth. The median income has increased 35% in the last 10 years, and the county’s tax digest has more than doubled in the last eight years, from $2 billion to $4.2 billion, according to NCIDA.

“Not only is Newton County diverse in its business community, the same holds true for our industry base,” says Debbie Harper, president of the Newton County Chamber of Commerce. “The four main sectors, [which are] advanced manufacturing, biopharma, film/gaming/music and commercial, keep the industrial base virtually recession-resistant.”

With a $10 million investment in Newton County, Piedmont Healthcare recently opened a new 30,000-square-foot medical office complex that anchors the redeveloped Eastside Crossing Shopping Center. Located about a mile from Piedmont Newton Hospital, the offices will eventually house cardiology, neurology, endocrinology and rheumatology practices.

Screenshot 2023 06 25 At 100717 AmThe new and expanding industry happening in the area, including Nisshinbo Automotive, Cinelease Studios-Three Ring and General Mills, bring great opportunity but also significant needs. To account for projected population growth of 8.75% by 2026, approximately 5,000 new residential units are in the pipeline, according to the Covington mayor’s office. A municipality with its film- and television-shoot pedigree has a lot more going on behind the scenes.

“Due to industrial, commercial and residential growth within the community, the City of Covington is investing significant resources and energy into rehabilitation and improvements to water and sewer infrastructure,” Mayor Steve Horton says. “These improvements are critically important, as Covington is expected to continue its rapid growth in the near future.”

Growing with the Flow

A game-changer for the entire community: that’s what Mike Hopkins, executive director of the Newton County Water and Sewerage Authority, calls the $212.8 million drinking water grant awarded to his organization, the Newton County Board of Commissioners and the City of Covington in January.

“It’s off the charts, the most the authority has received in 53 years,” he added. “I’ve been in the business 27 years and the most we ever received was $900,000 in 2009.”

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Financial Support: Mike Hopkins, executive director of the Newton County Water and Sewerage Authority; photo Ryan Johnson.

With funding made possible through the American Rescue Plan Act, the $400 million Drinking Water Projects to Support Increased Population (DWPSIP) grant program by the State of Georgia provides financial support for projects designed to improve water and sewer efficiency and capacity in expanding communities. The joint governmental application was one of only three to be awarded grant funds.

“Being awarded the grant was a major accomplishment and blessing for the city,” says Tres Thomas, Covington’s city manager. “City staff devoted significant resources to the grant application during the spring and summer of 2022, and its success serves as a great example of intragovernmental collaboration between three entities in Newton County. We are proud and thankful for the community partners that have been part of this effort.”

A majority of Newton County Water and Sewerage Authority’s $91 million part of the grant will go to the county water reuse facility. The authority will be able to return water to the users, which takes pressure off the county’s potable water supply while allowing for additional growth without additional strain on water resources, according to Hopkins.

“This is going to be a model for other places that want to preserve and provide for the future of their water resources,” Hopkins said. “By supporting the water utility provider’s efforts to construct a reuse water facility, it also confirms that Stanton Springs industrial park supports development done the right way, the sustainable way. For one industrial park to receive high-quality looks from major businesses, including Meta data centers, Takeda Pharmaceuticals and now Rivian, the story is just beginning – it’s got a long way to go – but the big thought of preservation and cutting-edge reuse concepts for our community is coming true.”

Marcello Banes, chair of the Newton County Board of Commissioners, says, “Takeda, Facebook and Rivian didn’t find Newton County by accident; it was a vision set many years ago to work collaboratively on our multicounty industrial park.”

Sustainable Effect

Covington’s investment in critical water and sewer infrastructure will allow the city to accommodate its new stakeholders while also continuing to provide for existing customers. Funded by a combination of grant dollars and a loan received from the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority, the city will be investing $52 million to upgrade the Eastside Sewer Basin and make improvements to the Eastside Lift Station and the Water Reclamation Facility.

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$10 Million Investment: Piedmont Healthcare recently opened a new 30,000-square-foot medical office complex that anchors the redeveloped Eastside Crossing shopping center; photo Ryan Johnson.

Additionally, Covington is one of only a handful of cities to use a Georgia Environmental Protection Division-sponsored Land Application System (LAS), vegetated land that naturally filters wastewater while growing trees for timber, soybeans for livestock feed and providing foliage for wildlife, according to the mayor’s office. The 2,000-acre LAS is jointly owned by the city and the Newton County Water and Sewerage Authority. In another uncommon application of sustainability, Covington’s Green Fuels Facility is one of the few public compressed natural gas filling stations in Georgia, with plans to incorporate electric vehicle chargers in the near future.

“Covington has leveraged these sustainable resources and partnered with a local nonprofit, Sustainable Newton, to integrate environmentally sustainable initiatives and programs intended to improve city operations and costs, while also educating our citizenry on sustainable opportunities in their community,” says Horton.

Green and Sky High Development

In March, Ascend Elements opened in Covington the largest lithium-ion battery recycling facility in North America. A $43 million investment in Newton County, the battery recycling and engineered materials startup’s first commercial-scale EV battery recycling operation delivers the annual capacity to process 30,000 metric tons of lithium-ion batteries or the equivalent of about 70,000 EV batteries.

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Walkable Community: Debbie Harper, president of the Newton County Chamber of Commerce, at the Publix shopping center in Covington Town Center; photo Ryan Johnson.

“This facility is an important part of America’s EV battery infrastructure, and this is just the start,” says Ascend Elements CEO Mike O’Kronley. “As an industry, we need to continue building our closed-loop battery materials supply chain to make electric vehicle batteries cleaner and more sustainable.”

Converted from an old industrial building, Ascend Elements’ 154,000-square-foot state-of-the-art facility will have a large impact. As of April, Ascend Elements
employed approximately 100 people in Newton County with plans to hire 85 more team members in the next year.

“Both the Newton County Industrial Development Authority and the Georgia Department of Economic Development played important roles in the site selection, but proximity to electric vehicle battery manufacturing facilities was the deciding factor,” says O’Kronley, adding accessibility to railroads, highways and renewable power sources as other important locational advantages.

Also in March, Archer Aviation broke ground on a new electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft (eVTOL) manufacturing facility next to the Covington Municipal Airport. The Silicon Valley-based aerospace company mobility will advance Newton County by $118 million in investment over the next decade.

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Recycling Operations: EV batteries are shredded and separated into various metal types at Ascend Elements: photo Ascend Elements.

“As our manufacturing facility comes online and increases production output, it’s projected to create upwards of 1,000 new jobs over the long-term for the local community,” says Glen Burks, vice president of manufacturing at Archer. “With those new jobs comes additional economic growth through infrastructure development, commerce with local business and much more.”

The two-building facility will be able to produce up to 2,300 eVTOL aircraft per year after completion in the first half of 2024. Less than 1.5 miles from Interstate 20, the more than 96-acre site was available as part of a long-term airport master plan that set aside large adjacent parcels for future development. Archer executed an extensive location search across the country before selecting Covington as the site for the high-volume eVTOL aircraft manufacturing facility.

“Newton County stood out in many ways during Archer’s site selection search, including the proactive planning and investment by the county in areas that are required for growth,”says Burks, who listed affordable housing solutions, both apartment and single-family homes, and improved and expanded infrastructure including roads, school systems and utilities. “Newton County was proactively creating the environment and infrastructure needed to support the business growth they were working to attract. Having a county that was not only planning, but also investing and building these aspects ahead of the growth, was a key aspect of our decision.”

Power of the People

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Collaborative Vision: Marcello Banes, chair of the Newton County Board of Commissioners, in front of the Newton County Courthouse; photo Ryan Johnson.

A company move is also a community move. A place of work should be in a place to be.

“When we put together our strategic plan, the one thing that kept coming up from the hundreds of residents interviewed was our small-town charm,” says Banes. “Our town square is full every day with locals shopping, people dining and tens of thousands of visitors coming to see ‘The Hollywood of the South.’ All that brings opportunities for Newton County to thrive going forward.”

People fuel business, both with their work and consumption. They’re also a city’s natural, everyday public relations staff, those “unpaid ambassadors” that every successful marketing entity prides itself on.

Leaders at both Archer and Ascend Elements describe Newton County as having people with a warm, welcoming nature. O’Kronley says that Covington’s historic downtown and nearby outdoor recreational opportunities also made the community attractive to Ascend Elements, which recently sponsored Newton Trails, a nonprofit focused on building and maintaining a system of greenway trails in the community.

“The people of Newton County were extremely receptive and embraced Archer from our first visit,” says Burks. “Additionally, the amount of tourism and filming that occurs within Newton County was a pleasant surprise. This creates a melting pot of talent and culture across industries which delivers unique opportunities to interact with people and cultures around the globe, contributing to further innovation. The interactions with community members are a reflection of the thriving and friendly local culture Newton County has cultivated.”

Speaking of Covington’s “historic and ongoing legacy in the film and tourism industry,” Horton notes that, unlike other Georgia cities that have entered the filming business in the last 15 years, his city’s involvement dates back more than 70 years. The high-profile legacy includes iconic classics such as The Dukes of Hazzard, Cannonball Run, In the Heat of the Night’s television adaptation and Remember the Titans, as well as new classics such as The Vampire Diaries and Sweet Magnolias.

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Locational Advantage: CEO Mike O’Kronley with co-founder and CTO Eric Gratz, PhD at the Ascend Elements grand opening in March 2023; photo Ascend Elements.

“The ongoing operation of Three Ring Studios just outside city limits is a sign that Covington’s reputation as a regional destination for filming will continue to thrive into the future,” he adds.

Small-town charm and big movie production have proven a very effective combination for tourism. A quarter-million tourists are expected to visit the area each year, with a record 96,383 people from 57 countries checking in at the Covington Welcome Center in 2022, according to the city’s community development office. The mayor reports that Covington’s “wildly successful” ability to attract visitors even translated into $200 in property tax savings on average per resident in 2022, thanks to the city’s “surging” hotel- motel tax revenue.

“In spite of its ambition and drive to be a cutting-edge city, Covington still maintains the energy and intimacy of a traditionally close-knit community,” Horton says. “Covington’s residents are highly engaged and committed to the city’s growth but are equally committed to preserving the historic nature and small-town feel of the area.”

Elevation by Collaboration

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Rapid Growth: City of Covington Mayor Steve Horton; photo Ryan Johnson.

With many developing projects and anticipated growth, the Chamber of Commerce board felt a strong need for a new comprehensive plan, partnering with the county on a long-term strategic vision.

“The plan is nearing completion and offers a little something for everyone,” Harper says. “Whether it’s rural estate living or multiuse development, walkable communities and everything in between, it is in the plan.”

Covington and Newton County embrace the diversity of activity with single-minded solidarity. The collaboration has proven itself on several fronts, including big business and the strong footing to support its promising path.

“Newton County’s success resides in its partnerships across the community,” says Hall.

Local Flavor

Shedding Green Light on Sustainable Connections

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Educating People: Sara Vinson, Sustainable Newton co-founder, at her farm; photo Ryan Johnson.

Life is a constant juggle of the big and small. Quality community service organizations such as Sustainable Newton help people see how small steps add up to big value, from pocketbook savings to saving the environment.

“An important project right now is educating people about the Inflation Reduction Act, the largest clean-energy investment that our country has ever made,” says Sara Vinson, Sustainable Newton co-founder, about the 2022 law that will lower energy costs for consumers and reduce U.S. carbon pollution by up to 40% from 2005 levels by 2030. “Sustainable Newton wants to ensure that Newton County households at all levels are aware of the opportunity to go solar, electrify their appliances and vehicles, and make energy efficiency improvements through the IRA’s tax credits and rebates.”

Balancing growth with sustainability is always a challenge, but sustainable partnerships and momentum continue to build in the area. Thanks to a grant from Meta, installation of a solar-energy system is happening for a local early childhood education nonprofit. Through David Eady, mayor of Oxford and senior manager at the Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business at Georgia Tech’s Scheller College of Business, Sustainable Newton connected with students for valuable data on the feasibility of converting the City of Covington fleet to electric vehicles, reinstituting glass recycling and more.

Sponsored by General Mills, one of Newton County’s largest manufacturers, the annual 5K Cheerios Challenge race on Earth Day provided the perfect opportunity for Sustainable Newton and partner Covington YMCA to showcase electric vehicles, bicycles and yard tools, as well as raise awareness of Inflation Reduction Act benefits, including an interactive Rewiring America IRA calculator exhibit.

For Maurice Carter, Sustainable Newton co-founder and past president, it’s about small, green steps to big goals. There remain big questions, too. For example, why do 53% of Americans say they’re either alarmed or concerned about global warming, according to Yale University, but only 8% of citizens are actively engaged in climate action?

“That’s us! That number needs to be much larger to effectively reverse climate change, and that’s why we formed Sustainable Newton,” Carter says. “We didn’t just want to worry about it, we wanted to do something.”

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