COVINGTON -- Newton County could have a very important role to fulfill in the Northeast Georgia Region over the next 25 years: Food supplier.
Officials gathered Thursday at Oxford City Hall to weigh in on the Northeast Georgia Plan 2035, the long-range planning project for managing growth in the region's 12 counties. The project is being spearheaded by the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission, which is gathering information from stakeholders such as elected officials, department heads and planners, to submit to the Planning Advisory Committee and the Regional Commission, the bodies that will develop goals and objectives for the plan.
Food production, preservation of agricultural land and growing agriculture-based industry and tourism was a need identified across the board by officials who attended Thursday's meeting. They agreed that Newton is primed to become the "bread basket" for surrounding counties, with its strong agricultural base.
Oxford Councilman Jim Windham said all the focus on attracting industry may be misguided. A better direction to take could be making the most of existing natural resources, he said.
"There's no place to camp at the reservoir," for instance, he said. The cost to support recreational activities would be much less than supporting industry and "maybe getting their sales tax dollars would be a better opportunity all around. We need to focus on what we already have to bring people here and let them go back home. There's only so much industry you can get."
Windham said the multi-county mixed-use development Stanton Springs "may be proof we were headed in the wrong direction. That's been under development for 10 years and I don't think there has been a brick laid out there." A focus on agriculture would draw food processing industries, he said.
Steve Bowen, dean of Oxford College, added that with food reserves getting lower, prices are getting higher and there is a demand for more locally produced food.
Newborn Mayor Roger Sheridan worried that the region's water resources could be affected by ongoing water wars between Georgia, Alabama and Florida. He said the Atlanta area will be the priority when it comes to water. Water and Sewerage Authority Executive Director Mike Hopkins said he doubts there's need to worry, as transporting water to that area would be costly.
Kay Lee with The Center said while there may be a concern, the best way to deal with it is to focus on making Newton valuable to the region and state and that can be achieved by becoming a food supplier.
"The only thing in our hands is what we see right here. That's what we can take action on," she said.
Other important issues officials identified are transportation, primarily connectivity, public transportation options and non-vehicle transportation options; lack of access to quality healthcare facilities; education attainment; and unemployment.
Officials with the county, municipalities, Water and Sewerage Authority, GIS, Georgia Forestry Commission and other local agencies participated in the discussion, a long with representatives from Walton and Morgan county.
There are three meetings scheduled throughout the 12-county region to generate input from stakeholders. The plan is slated to be adopted in January.