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Posted: June 25, 2010 12:30 a.m.

Newton’s dreamers

It’s easy for some who call themselves rational thinkers to dismiss dreamers and their dreams. Dreamers are viewed as starry-eyed loafers with an aversion to a hard day’s work. But think of dreamers like Henry Ford, Ted Turner, Bill Gates. Without dreamers, there’d have been no United States of America. This world needs its dreamers.

I wonder sometimes if we’ve lost the art of dreaming in this community, if our vision has developed cataracts, so I asked some I consider to be visionary thinkers what dreams of theirs might revitalize this place we call home.

District 3 Commissioner Nancy Schulz lights up when she talks about the potential for developing ourselves as a telecommuting community. “It’s the wave of the future,” she says. “It’s what universities and grad schools are preaching. But telecommuters get lonely working in their cubicles. What they want in a town is for places to meet and socialize, like coffeehouses, music venues and parks and public spaces wired with broadband.”

Asheville, N.C., where the Schulz’s daughter lives and telecommutes, has become just such a haven by offering quality of life options that complement the town’s natural setting. It could easily happen here, Nancy says, if the amenities are put in place.

Library Director Greg Heid dreams of Newton County as an artists’ community to draw arts aficionados and students out of metro Atlanta in search of contact with working artists in a bucolic rural setting.

“We have unique art galleries and artists in pockets around the county,” he says. A dream like this could uplift the entire community, he maintains, because art fulfills the human spirit. “We are not whole without art in our lives. An artists’ colony could be a great tourism draw.”

Dr. Bradd Shore, an Emory anthropology professor, says his dream is to see us capitalize to a greater extent on our long history as a film and TV locale — maybe a film festival — to attract tourists.

Scott Willis is next year’s chair of the Chamber of Commerce. His dream is based on firsthand experience with corporations being courted to expand or locate here.

“They want to know first if we have sewer and electric capacity, but what they really care about is where their employees are going to live. They want civic centers, trails, parks, swim facilities and good schools. Restaurants we’ve talked to about locating downtown say their decision hinges on the building of the civic center to bring more patrons in.”

Newton County’s 2050 Build-out Plan is brilliant, Willis says.

“Everyone in the state wants to know how we did it. We’ve got to stop listening to naysayers and build the commitment for action. It’s time to get busy and not lay back. What does a racer do in the turns? He accelerates. That’s where we are.” One dream of Willis was for the city/county to gain control of the Norfolk-Southern railroad right-of-way, but that dream is either stalled or dead. “At a minimum, it could have provided the right-of-way for pumping water from Bear Creek into town,” he said.

A longtime community observer said: “For the past 20 years, we’ve appealed to newcomers primarily for our cheap housing, but we have to give people a more compelling reason to choose to live here; if not, the future will be bleaker than the present.”

More than half the local industry managers don’t even live in Newton County, he tells me. He echoes Willis when he says that better educated and better paid individuals want amenities like recreation, entertainment venues, trails, smart growth, historic preservation and a commitment to the arts, along with good public schools and private school options. A dream led to the creation of the Newton County Education Foundation, soon to launch a campaign to raise funds for public schools in order to support teachers who will inspire the students who then will become contributing members of this community, explained chair Kathie Smith.

One of the most visionary people in town is Randy Vinson. Of the present, he says: “I’m optimistic we’ll weather this economic storm, but we’re in for significant changes in the scale and type of growth from here on out. The flow of capital is greatly reduced, and I don’t foresee it coming back in the volume of a few years ago.” Of the future, he says: “The communities that will survive and thrive again will be the ones that embrace local businesses, food producers, artists and other sectors in their midst. We should be doing everything we can to celebrate our unique local economy. This is just common sense. We need to learn how to live as locally as possible for all our needs.

“It may cost a little more but think of the time you’ll save, the people you’ll meet and help, and all the good you’ll do for the local economy and environment. This is what I believe will pull us out of the economic tailspin we’re in.”

Kay Lee Brown of The Center for Community Preservation and Planning doesn’t believe there is just one silver bullet that’s going to put Newton County back on the map. “It’s when we stay in dialogue with each other that the great idea is going to emerge.” Thanks to our dreamers.

Barbara Morgan is a resident of Covington. Her column appears on Fridays.

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