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Forum focuses on growth, downtown district

COVINGTON -- As campaign season comes to a close, Smart Growth Newton County and Main Street Covington gave undecided voters a chance to get to know the candidates a little better at a forum Tuesday evening at Washington Street Community Center.

All candidates in contested races for the city of Covington attended. Porterdale Mayor Bobby Hamby was the sole candidate for that city to attend.

Candidates were allowed three minutes for opening remarks and were then asked questions regarding the 2050 Build Out Plan, adopted by the Leadership Collaborative, which aims to preserve greenspace and prevent sprawl by channeling growth to development nodes. Candidates were asked to identify challenges and opportunities for cities related to the plan as well as actions they would take to ensure it is implemented. Covington candidates were also asked to identify their top three priorities for the downtown district and what role the city can play in promoting the success of existing businesses and attracting new businesses there.

Covington Mayor: Ronnie Johnston vs. write-in candidate Tim Walden

Johnston said as mayor, he hopes to help establish a vision for the city that everyone can have ownership in, and he would strive to explain the 2050 plan to citizens in a way that's understandable.

Going door to door campaigning, Johnston said when he brings up the plan "99 percent of the people say 'What are you talking about?'

He said he's been to numerous homes without computers, or newspaper subscriptions or even electricity. If elected, he said he would break down residential areas into neighborhood clusters and take time to visit citizens in each area, create a monthly newsletter and have publicized office hours during which citizens could make an appointment to speak with him.

His top priorities for downtown are preservation of the historic value, installation of public restrooms and making sure business owners' opinions are heard regarding issues that impact them.

He said he would work with the Chamber of Commerce, the county and Main Street on new business opportunities, but noted that the high illiteracy rate in Newton means locals don't often get jobs offered when those businesses arrive. He said the city should work with civic groups and others to address illiteracy.

Walden said he will focus on helping the council work together as a team.

"With all the squabbling going on, you'll never get anything done," he said. "Like I've always heard, there's my side, your side and the right side. It's time to sit down and listen to the people of Covington."

Walden agreed that more must be done to inform the citizenry of the 2050 Plan. He cited the Clark's Grove neighborhood as an example of how to cluster growth. He said he longs for the days when everything you needed could be found on the Square, from grocery stores to a movie theater, and he'd like to see that again.

Walden also said he supports the rails to trails initiative. "I for one think it's the best thing we could ever do. We're going to have to protect our infrastructure," Walden said, adding that 150 feet of the proposed trail would run right through his property.

Top priorities for the downtown district are keeping it attractive, publicizing current businesses, keeping activities and film shoots there so people will continue to be drawn to the Square, he said.

East Ward Post 2: Ron Martin vs. Mike Whatley (incumbent)

Martin said he'd like to get communities together in various parts of the county to discuss the plan and how to implement it. "If we get the right committees and the right people and get out there and start working now ... that's the thing, we can't wait. The economy is bad but it's going to get better and when it gets better I don't want to be sitting here with our hands tied." Martin said encouraging citizen involvement will be key to implementing the plan.

As for the downtown, Martin said priorities are more parking, bathrooms and encouraging building owners to upgrade their properties. He also said he'd like to see incentives, such as free or discounted electricity rates for a month or two for those who open a small business.

Whatley, who is seeking a fourth term on the council, said he's been a part of the 2050 Plan for the past seven years and serves on the Communications Committee charged with getting the word out about the plan.

"If elected I will keep pushing to see it through to fruition," he said.

Whatley said retail, restrooms and parking are priorities for the downtown.

He said he personally tried to get retailer Stein Mart to come to Newton Plaza after Belk pulled out, but was told the median income in Covington did not meet the store's criteria, and that's the challenge of getting and keeping new businesses.

He added that he believes the city should own the Square Park in the center of the Square, currently owned by the county but maintained by the city. He said the Square needs to be a destination spot. The Fourth of July celebration is an example of an event that didn't cost much but drew lots of people and positive feedback, he said, adding that events like that will help citizens feel more invested in the Square and spend money at shops and restaurants there.

East Ward Post 3: Lamar Brown vs. Keith Dalton (incumbent)

Brown came out swinging against Dalton.

He quoted a newspaper article in which Dalton was indirectly quoted as stating that it's too difficult to do long-range planning given the economy so he will focus on keeping spending down to save money for businesses and residents.

He called the comment "irresponsible," noting the city will spend half a billion dollars during Dalton's term.

"Decisions must be made not by personal preference or preconceived bias, but by a clear understanding of the investments necessary to achieve cost-effective, sustainable long-term results," Brown said. "You don't develop and maintain a healthy local economy by failing to prepare for the future."

Brown said he is running because "I see the current council operating with no consistent long-term view of what is best for our city."Regarding the 2050 Plan, he said challenges will be making infrastructure improvements to accommodate more dense developments. Critical actions to implement the plan are more dialogue between the cities and county, an aggressive approach to ensure priorities in programs like SPLOST and T-SPLOST are aligned with the plan and making it a policy for city staff to present an analysis of the existing city Comprehensive, Strategic and Transportation plans and others any time the council considers a significant new project.

Brown said his priority for downtown is tourism to boost the tax base.

"As long as they're spending here instead of in their hometowns, they should be welcomed by businesses with open arms," he said.

Dalton said he didn't remember the comment Brown quoted and wouldn't argue about it, but later added that city officials have been told by their strategic planning consultants that planning beyond a year or two right now is difficult due to the economic situation.

He added that citizens are struggling to survive right now, and, "Yes, I look at everything from a fiscal standpoint so we can be viable down the road."

Dalton said he supports the concept in the 2050 Plan of concentrating growth in certain areas because it's very expensive to run utilities and focused growth will save money for the city.

Public restrooms accessible on weekends, additional parking and more evening activities are his priorities for downtown.

He said the city supports Main Street with a $125,000 budget and added that the downtown area brings "free revenue without a lot of output."

Porterdale: Mayor Bobby Hamby

Hamby's opponent, Arline Chapman, did not attend the forum. Hamby, who has been mayor for six years, said the relationships between Porterdale, the county and other cities are the best they've ever been and if elected he will work to keep it that way. What happens in one city affects the entire community, he said.

He said the burden will largely be on county government to implement ordinances and procedures to make the 2050 Plan a reality. The challenge for cities will be to make sure infrastructure is in place to support the growth and work alongside the county to implement the plan.

The municipal election takes place Nov. 8.