COVINGTON -- Congressman Jim Marshall, D-Ga., said during a visit to Covington on Thursday that he won't hold it against local officials if they don't use the money he helped secure to purchase a railroad, but added they need to think about finding ways to enhance amenities to attract industry and private investment.
Marshall said trails have worked well in other Georgia counties and cities, including the city of Macon, where he formerly served as mayor.
While Marshall said he knows residents are concerned property values will go down and crime will increase if a trail system is built, in his experience, the opposite is true.
"The material I've seen on other projects like this, values go up and crime goes down, but that's something Newton County and Covington needs to figure out for itself," Marshall said.
Marshall said he wants to reallocate the money if county and city officials choose not to purchase the railroad.
"I've got 21 counties, many of which are really desperate to do these kinds of projects," he said.
"My guess is this will be the only opportunity Newton County and the city will have like this," he added. "I know the timing is awkward for a lot of folks."
County and city officials have been hesitant to pursue the railroad purchase, some citing economic decisions and others the lack of information on how much it will cost to purchase the railroad, possibly convert it to a trail system, tear up the rail line and trestles and maintain it.
If they ultimately decide to turn down the money, it will not affect his future efforts to secure federal funding for the community, Marshall said.
Regardless of whether officials pursue a rails to trails project, they need to grab every opportunity to enhance amenities and improve quality of life to make Newton County stand out to industry and private investors, Marshall said.
"This is a very vibrant community. I'm very impressed with Newton County and how forward-thinking its leadership is. I would encourage them to be willing to invest in amenities. That's widely perceived around the United States to be the kind of investment forward-thinking communities make, and those forward-thinking communities are the ones that get the money. Businesses aren't going to move where their managers don't want to live," he said.
In question are 14.5 miles of the Norfolk Southern rail line running through Covington to Starrsville and on to Rose Acres between Mansfield and Newborn. The price offered to the county is $1.8 million. The county has a federal grant of $1.06 million to apply toward the purchase, and Board of Commissioners Chairman Kathy Morgan said an additional $500,000 in federal money is available, leaving a local match of about $235,000.
In March, the Covington City Council declined by a vote of 4-2 to pursue a grant to construct a trail system along the right of way of the rail line.
Morgan has said she does not have a consensus from the board to move forward with the purchase.
A spokesman with Marshall's office previously told the Citizen local officials will need to make a decision by next year.