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Newton County History Center takes shape
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Envisioned as a place to preserve and record the history of Newton County through "whatever means appropriate and feasible," the project to turn the historic county jail into a museum is one step closer to reality.

The museum/jail project has taken on a new name: the Newton County History Center. Kathy Dixson of Avient Museum Services, a firm contracted by the county to assist in the development of the history center, said the decision was made to call the project a history center rather than a museum because "the term center seemed more appropriate for what is envisioned as a dynamic vibrant professionally administered organization with broad purposes and programming."

The strategic plan for the history center was presented to the public at a well-attended meeting Thursday night at the Center for Community Preservation and Planning. The plan will be presented to the Newton County Board of Commissioners in the coming weeks.

In the formulation of the plan, two stakeholder meetings and two public meetings were held. During the meetings surveys were handed out asking attendants to prioritize from a list of possibilities what they feel the history center's purpose should be. The number one response by attendants was "to preserve and record the history of Newton County through whatever means are appropriate and feasible."

According to an executive summary of the plan, respondents further elaborated that they would like to see the history center "record the stories of the people of the county - stories of struggle, survival, ingenuity, etc. - so that their stories can be told and used to inspire others."

 A consensus by the project's stakeholders has been formed that, due to the space constraints of the historic jail building, the emphasis of the history center will not be on the collection and housing of county artifacts.

"Collecting, storing and documenting permanent collections according to professional guidelines requires many resources including space," states the summary. "Given the limited resources of the NCHC (Newton County History Center) at this point in its development, the history center should consider, at least initially, using loaned artifacts for exhibits and other programs."

The announcement of this decision caused some consternation at the meeting. Sam M. Hay III, whose father served as a president of the Newton County Historical Society, said it was his understanding when a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax was approved in 2005 for the renovation of the building, that the historic jail would be used to house the numerous historical artifacts currently spread out around the county and in the old Cousins Gym building.

Hay also objected to the plan's proposal that the BOC should provide further oversight and funding for the history center after it opened to the public. Hay suggested the Newton County Historical Society (which has helped to spearhead the project thus far) should be the sole caretakers of the history center. Hay said none of his family's numerous heirlooms would be given to the history center if the BOC were to have control of them.

Several members in the audience objected to this view however. Newton County Historical Society member Charles King said he did not believe the historical society - a volunteer organization - could handle the running of the history center by itself, but that the society should serve as an important adjunct in the running of the history center.

The strategic plan of the history center advises that the BOC form a new commission - the Historic Resources Commission - which would be responsible for historic properties and initiatives in the county beginning with the opening of the history center. Over time responsibilities for the commission could be expanded to include grant writing, volunteer coordination and event planning for other historic properties and initiatives in the county.

The plan also recommends the history center conduct a survey in the near future to learn exactly what historical artifacts are still located in the county as well as what condition they are in and who cares for them.

"NCHC can help preserve artifacts throughout the county in many ways other than developing permanent collections," reads the strategic plan. "These include referring would-be donors to other organizations that are already collecting and properly caring for historical materials, borrowing and highlighting the material culture through exhibits and providing information on identifying and caring for artifacts."

Special Projects Coordinator for Newton County Cheryl Delk, who has worked with Avient on the plans for the history center, said the county does need an archive building but at present there is not enough space in the jail building to store all of the county's heirlooms while at the same time retaining enough space for exhibits.

"We need some help from the public or the historical societies to help us solve this problem," Delk said. "If you just pack it full of things then you don't have room to teach and to interpret things."