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Farm groups behind ag center proposal

Photo by Howard Reed

Photo by Howard Reed

COVINGTON -- The Board of Commissioners remains divided over the proposed list of projects to be funded on the 2011 SPLOST. One of the most contentious projects for the two commissioners who do not support the list is a $1.1 million agricultural center.

Commissioners Nancy Schulz and Earnest Simmons have said they have scant details about the project and its scope, as well as what it could cost the county in the long run. They've also raised concerns about lack of a business plan, architectural drawings or a feasibility study.

But while all the details may not be ironed out, there is a plan in place that has been years in the making, according to Brent Galloway, president of the Newton County Farm Bureau. The Farm Bureau proposed the center, along with the Piedmont Cattlemen's Association and the Green Enterprise Group, Galloway said. Their intent is to have a space for groups like 4-H and Future Farmers of America, as well as local farmers, to have educational programs, livestock shows and sales.

"We just don't have anywhere in the county where we can house these types of events," Galloway said.

Also part of the plan is a facility that would serve as a "one-stop shop" for all services related to agriculture, such as the Newton County Extension Service, the Soil and Water Conservation office and Natural Resources Conservation Service. The facility would include a meeting room for up to 300 people that could be rented by organizations and residents and could be converted when needed into a cattle show or sale area, he said. There would also be space outside for cattle ties or horse stalls.

The idea is for the facility to be self-supporting through rent and other user fees, Galloway said.

"I know some people are concerned about the maintenance and operations of it. We feel like it would be utilized so much it would create enough rent to maintain it," he said.

Galloway said the hope is that the Extension Service would manage the facility, noting that the county is already helping support the agency. The county subsidizes payroll for the agency, which is housed in the Newton County Administration Building, a county-owned facility.

If the facility proves not to be self-sufficient, maintenance and operations costs would fall to Newton County. However, Galloway said he believes the various agricultural-related organizations in the county could raise enough money to start a fund that could help pay for those costs.

The facility would be of benefit to the entire county by drawing people and their money in, he said. There are similar facilities in Morgan, Walton, Henry and Oglethorpe counties that are packed every weekend, he said.

A location has not been determined, but property near the Covington Municipal Airport has been considered, he said. But the hope is that the land would be donated and SPLOST funds could be used solely for construction costs, he said. The group initially requested $3 million but scaled that down to $1.1 million, which Galloway said should be enough to construct the building portion of the project.

Galloway said the project has been discussed for several years, beginning soon after commissioners opted to allocate SPLOST funds to a civic center.

"Our county has been built from farmers and landowners. For many, many years the biggest burden has come to large property owners, and large property owners get the least benefit from county services of anybody. We feel like it's time this part of the community gets something back they could utilize ... We thought, 'If we can afford a civic center, surely to goodness we can afford an agricultural center,'" Galloway said.

According to Chairman Kathy Morgan, agriculture is a multibillion-dollar industry in Newton County and nearly one-fourth of the county's acreage, or some 38,600 acres, is designated for agricultural use.