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Posted: October 21, 2011 12:30 a.m.

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Candidates talk growth at forum

Leaders must focus on retaining and attracting businesses to the county while managing growth in a way that maintains Newton’s character, candidates for office in Covington and Porterdale said at a forum Tuesday.

The seven candidates — for Covington mayor and City Council and for Porterdale mayor — all endorsed the county’s 2050 Build Out Plan, which set a template for managing an estimated quadrupling of the population over the next 40 years, and pitched ideas for remaining active in order to retain and attract business.

"The economy is going to get better and when it gets better, we don’t want to be sitting on our hands," said Ronald Martin, who is challenging incumbent City Councilor Michael Whatley for his seat.

Six of the seven candidates, excepting Porterdale Mayor Bobby Hamby, were asked what three things they would do to improve Covington’s downtown district and to preserve and attract business to the square and downtown.

Most of the answers focused on keeping the square attractive, ensuring it remains a center of activity in Covington and the county, installing public restrooms, improving parking and attracting a broad range of shops and businesses to the square.

"We have a busy city and we need to keep it busy" to bolster downtown businesses, said Tim Walden, a write-in candidate for mayor of Covington.

Lamar Brown, who is challenging City Councilor Keith Dalton for his post, said Covington should take advantage of the film industry and the visitors that attention brings to the area.

"Tourism is one of the biggest factors in preserving downtown," Brown said, because it brings people, and dollars, to the city’s businesses and public coffers.

Dalton said the city should continue to invest in the square, including public restrooms and parking, as it has in the past.

"We invest quite a bit in the downtown. We budgeted $125,000 for lighting (on the square)," Dalton said.

The county also must improve literacy rates and raise the median income level in order to attract a wide range of businesses. Whatley said that some businesses officials have been courting to replace Belk’s, such as Stein Mart Department Stores, were deterred because the county’s median income is too low.

"They said they’d love to come, but the median income doesn’t fit in with them," Whatley said.

In the longer term, the candidates all expressed support for the 2050 Build Out Plan, which, among other things, would encourage and direct growth to five areas around the county, including Covington, the Salem Road area, Oak Hill, Almon and Hub Junction.

The plan was developed in response to estimates that put Newton County’s population at about 400,000 people by 2050. According to the 2010 Census, the county has about 99,000 people. It emphasized protecting water sources, creating new and expanding existing communities, coordinating infrastructure needs and developing transportation and business corridors all while maintaining a rural or small town character.

"The challenge for cities is the aging infrastructure, maintaining and upgrading our existing infrastructure," Hamby said.

Leaders in the cities and the county also needed to do a better job informing citizens of the plan. Ronnie Johnston, a candidate for Covington mayor, said many residents he met with while campaigning never heard of the plan.

"It’s got to be communicated to people in ways they can buy into it," Johnston said.

Arlene Chapman, who is challenging Hamby for mayor of Porterdale, was invited to the forum but could not attend, said Jonathan Paschal of Smart Growth Newton County, who organized the event.

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