Leaders: At times, business avoids us

Photo by Howard Reed

Photo by Howard Reed

COVINGTON -- The definition of quality of life is in the eye of the beholder, but many community leaders in Newton County are beginning to speak with one voice about how to achieve it.

Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce President Hunter Hall addressed both the Covington City Council and the Newton County Board of Commissioners this week and said the chamber is doubling down on its efforts to recruit industry to the area.

He said quality of life can mean different things to different people, but it is really a byproduct of what a community needs: quality jobs.

"Quality jobs lead to higher per capita income which leads to commercial growth which leads to higher tax digest dollars and that's what produces quality of life," Hall said. "Where we're going is not driven by quality of life. We're trying to find quality jobs."

Hall added that allowing the sales of liquor-by-the-drink could help drive valuable economic development, as well. He pointed to the construction of a Walmart store that is under way on Salem Road and said that corridor is prime for attracting high-end restaurants.

"But it won't happen because we don't have alcohol by the drink," Hall said, "and that's why we will have a fast-food corridor there."

He said Newton County has been targeted by some retailers as a low-income area, as evidenced by the recent opening of a Save-A Lot grocery store at Elm Street and U.S. Highway 278. Hall said this company locates in areas with an average per capita income of $45,000 or less.

According to 2010 U.S. Census figures, the per capita income in Newton County in 2009 was $22,158. The median household income in 2009 was $50,137, with 12.8 percent of the population living below the poverty level.

"We are on discounted grocers' radar, which is why we have so many Waffle Houses, McDonald's, Dollar General's and Dollar Stores," Hall said.

After Hall's presentation before the Board of Commissioners on Tuesday, Commissioner J.C. Henderson asked him about the effect impact fees have on prospective developers. Hall said impact fees are a reality that most developers have to stomach, but added, "There is a 100 percent guarantee that a prospective industry will ask for these fees to be waived."

Randy Conner, Covington's finance coordinator, agreed that attracting business should be the No. 1 priority. He asked the City Council on Monday after Hall's presentation for permission to conduct an educational demographic improvement feasibility study.

"It has become abundantly clear that the attraction of new businesses to our community and the elimination of the road blocks to attracting these businesses must be priority one," Conner said.

While Covington has many competitive attributes -- plentiful water, proximity to the interstates, a regional airport -- "we have a glaring weakness, one which will inhibit our attempts to attract major business citizens to our community. That weakness is our education and income demographics," he said.

Conner reported that recent surveys of residents in the city's Urban Redevelopment Area show that more than 30 percent of the residents 18 years and older do not have a high school equivalency. He said Georgia's SAT scores are lower than most other states and Newton County's elementary schools rank 97 out of the 156 Georgia school districts in reading.

"When businesses look at Newton County and Covington they see a community that is below the state average in reading and high school equivalency in a state that ranks near the bottom in education," Conner said. "This screams, 'Let's go elsewhere' to the potential corporate citizen before they even see the incredible advantages of our community."

After meeting with the board of directors of Newton Reads, Conner said, he and Councilman Chris Smith decided to pursue creating a partnership to address these problems. Undertaking a feasibility study and creating plans to improve education in the community would be the top priority, he said.

Initially, Mayor Kim Carter and Councilwoman Janet Goodman raised concerns about supporting individual nonprofit organizations, especially when it has turned down requests in the past.

However, City Attorney Ed Crudup said the feasibility study would define what the city's role would be. The City Council voted unanimously to allow Conner to work with Newton Reads to prepare the study.