Planning center's funding focus of Tuesday's Commission meeting

COVINGTON — Attending Tuesday evening’s Newton County Commission meeting may be akin to heading into the shootout at the OK Corral. Or maybe not, depending who you talk with about the top issue confronting the commission.

Commissioners are expected to discuss funding for The Center for Community Preservation and Planning, whether the county should continue lending public support for the organization that has provided extensive research and collaborative facilitation for the county.

Taxpayer money supporting The Center’s work so far amounts to more than $250,000.

In recent weeks sometimes heated controversy arose in town hall meetings over the proposed baseline ordinances of the 2050 Plan, a guide for the county’s future growth that was developed through the collaborative atmosphere provided at The Center.

Friday County Commissioner John Douglas suggested it may be time to cut off funding to The Center, that it has not been worth the expense. Douglas represents District 1 on the eastern part of the county, where the 2050 Plan calls for less development and restrictive zoning in order to preserve waterways and green space.

At the very least, Douglas said he wants the county to sign a contract with The Center for future work rather than paying by line items for separate deliverables as it has done in the past.

Calls by the Citizen to other commissioners were not returned Monday, indicating the lawmakers may be in wait-and-see mode before Tuesday’s meeting.

But some public and private leaders contend that the 2050 Plan process should continue and that The Center has produced valuable changes and byproducts for the county.

“I am a big proponent of a plan, and this process will give us a plan which supports the interests of the people of Newton County,” said Covington Mayor Ronnie Johnston.

“The process was to get input from the citizens of the county and then get back with the consultants and make adjustments to the plan. It’s extremely important to go through the process.”

Newton County Chamber of Commerce President Hunter Hall agreed.

“Lots of people gave their input and ideas,” Hall said. “I would hope our elected bodies would move forward with a second version of the plan.”

Johnston pointed out that The Center helped create the Newton County Leadership Collaborative, an assembly of county leadership to address problems affecting multiple jurisdictions. The county’s collaborative culture has garnered awards and national attention.

“Our key role is to facilitate collaboration,” said Kay Lee, co-founder and executive director of The Center for Community Preservation and Planning.

Hall related that in 2008 The Center and the Leadership Collaborative created an economic development strategy for the county.

“That’s the basic blueprint that we have today,” Hall said. One of the key pieces of the strategy led to Baxter International’s decision to build a plant at Stanton Springs that will employ approximately 1,600 workers.

“A lot of people don’t understand The Center’s role in that,” Hunter said.

“About eight months ago we were interviewing retail consultants to fine tune our retail marketing strategy,” Hunter continued. Two consultants looked at the Chamber’s demographic data and The Center’s, he said.

“They told us, ‘You need to use The Center’s data.’ Now we’re upgrading our system’s data to match The Center’s.”

“How do you have a great city without a great county?” Johnston said. “That’s where it makes sense for Covington from a collaboration standpoint.”

Johnston gave an example of purchasing diesel fuel for public vehicles. Each government entity buying fuel independently as in the past can save money if everyone joins in to purchase in bulk.

Lee noted that The Center’s role as repository for demographic data on the county has been valuable.

“Every time you hire consultants for a project it requires demographic data about the environment the consultant is working in,” Lee said. The consulting costs are reduced when the data already is collected rather than each government entity cobbling it together for each individual project.

“I’m very proud of the governments in Newton County for working together,” Lee said. “That’s a victory.”

The County Commission will meet in a public work session at 6 p.m. this evening, and the regular meeting begins at 7 p.m. at the Historic Courthouse.