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City won't go after trail grant

COVINGTON -- The City Council has opted not to pursue a grant to construct a trail system that would be built along the abandoned right of way of a rail line that county and city officials are considering purchasing.

The grant application proposal was one of seven presented by the city's grant writer, Randy C. Conner, Monday night. The council agreed to pursue the other six grants, but the vote was 2-4 against pursuing the grant for the trail project.

City and county officials are considering purchasing about 14.5 miles of the rail line owned by Norfolk Southern and Great Walton railroads running through Covington to Starrsville and Mansfield.

The 100 foot right of way consists of approximately 206 acres. Conner proposed pursuing a grant from the federal Department of Transportation for construction of a portion of a trail system that could be located along the right of way. The grant would require a match of $1,100 per acre by the city, or $226,600. If the city received the grant, but the purchase of rail line did not go through, the city could then reject the grant, Conner said.

Councilwoman Janet Goodman made a motion to pursue the grant, but it was met with silence from the rest of the council.

"You guys don't want to preserve our greenways?" Mayor Kim Carter asked, noting that the project was included in the city's comprehensive plan and other plans and studies.

"You have the option not to take the grant, but you lose out if you don't apply for it," she said. "I'd like to hear some rationale."

When the council remained silent, Conner noted that similar trails have brought revenues into communities and helped with economic development. A trail in Dallas, Texas, of a similar size brings in $2 million in revenue per year, he said.

The trail will also generate jobs, he said, adding that small shops, bed and breakfasts and other businesses are likely to locate along the trail. Conner said connectivity is the new buzz word and without that, the city would be severely handicapped in attracting new businesses.

"The socioeconomic benefits of this project are tremendous and will greatly enhance our ability to improve the quality of life of our residents and attract the types of businesses that will improve our community," Conner said.

Conner said about 7 miles of the trail would be located in the city.

Carter urged the council not to confuse the trail project with the acquisition of the railroad, although that would be necessary for the project to come to fruition.

"There's no assurance we're going to get it. There's no assurance the railroad will be purchased," she said.

Councilman Mike Whatley seconded the motion to pursue the grant. The vote was 2-4 with Councilmen Keith Dalton and Chris Smith and Councilwomen Ocie Franklin and Hawnethia Williams opposed.

"No rationale? No comments?" Carter asked, but those in opposition remained silent.

Following a public meeting in April regarding the purchase of the railroad, city and county officials have mostly been tight-lipped on where plans stand. The Board of Commissioners went into closed session, citing land acquisition, during its recent retreat, to discuss the issue.

In other news, the city opted to pursue the following grants:

* Geiger Street water line project: The project will replace aging water lines along the full length of Geiger Street and its side streets to improve water quality and provide increased fire protection for residents. The city is pursuing a Community Development Block Grant through the state Department of Community Affairs.

* Elizabeth/Dearing streets water line project: This project will replace aging water lines along several streets in the Elizabeth/Dearing street area. The city is pursuing a Georgia Environmental Facilities Authority grant for state revolving funds.

* Corley Street water line project: This project will replace water lines along Corley, Alexander, Sanford, Thelma and Usher streets. The grant is through the Georgia Economic Development Administration.

* City of Covington Water Security Project: The project is designed to protect the water supply from contamination through the city's approximately 1,500 fire hydrants. The purpose is to prevent substances from being placed in the water system intentionally or by accident by inserting a protective device inside each hydrant as opposed to a locking device outside the hydrant. The grant is through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and would require a local match.

* The city is also pursuing grant money allocated by the U.S. Department of Energy to the Georgia Environmental Facilities Authority for a program to fund energy upgrades to residences, through an interest-free loan for up to five years. Payments would be added to utility bills with the concept being that the energy savings would reduce the bill by more than the payment amount. Funds would be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis and would not be income-driven. GEFA has been allocated $5 million and will be awarding five or six grants. The city's participation will be through Electric Cities of Georgia.