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2020 REWIND: Newton's top stories of the year ranked 6-10
The Covington News begins its review of Newton County's top stories and topics from 2020 ranked 6-10. Watch for stories and topics ranked 1-5 this weekend on
eastside groundbreaking
Newton County school board members break ground for the new Eastside High School on Jan. 21, joined by the family of the late Almond Turner. - photo by Submitted Photo

No. 6 — NCSS breaks ground on new Eastside HS

By Taylor Beck |

Arguably one of the biggest events to take place in 2020 for Newton County Schools came early as district officials broke ground on the new Eastside High School on Jan. 21.

The site of the new school is located at 140 Georgia Hwy. 142 in Covington and is expected to accommodate approximately 1,650 students.

Aside from school administrators and board members, the family of late school board member Almond Turner also attended the groundbreaking ceremony.

“Mr. Turner was a dedicated member of the Newton County Board of Education and he played an important role on our team,” Newton County Schools Superintendent Samantha Fuhrey said. “He was actively involved in all of the discussions concerning the construction of the new Eastside High School, so it was very important for us to include his family in the groundbreaking of the school. We were so happy to have them there to participate in his honor.”

Total cost for the school’s construction stands at $59.48 million. The district, so far, has been billed for 21% of the cost ($12.65 million). The school system purchased the 107-acre property it will set on for approximately $727,600. The facility is currently expected to be finished and ready for students by January 2022.

During a Newton County Schools Board of Education meeting held in November, Project Manager Jeff Prine delivered a progress update, as well as a financial update on the facility. The project was about 40 days behind as of August due to massive amounts of rain in early spring.

“(The delays were) primarily tied back to the wet weather we had in early spring and all summer,” Prine said. “But since August, we’ve been able to work with the contractor to make up about a week of that time, and they’ve been working on the weekends. They brought in extra crews, and in all, they’ve been working longer days. So they really are doing their job trying to make up days, and we’re confident that we’ll be able to continue making progress to get those days back so we can get back on schedule.”

He reported 99% of site grading and utilities, and under slab utilities were finished. Approximately 95% of drives and parking were wrapped up, including the clearing and grading of the school’s entrance off U.S. Hwy. 278. The construction of arched culverts for the entrance was just getting underway.

“They’ve done an extensive amount of work in putting road control measures in to make sure that you don’t have any kind of sediment down in the stream area,” Prine said of the entrance construction.

On-grade concrete was 95% completed, as well as structural steel erection for the school’s lower building, Prine reported. Only 10% of the structural steel had been erected for the upper building.

Sports fields, including football, track, baseball, softball and practice fields, were 85% complete, he said. The fields are currently getting sod, irrigation and fencing installed. Prine said workers had also started paving the track.

Prine expected the lower building roofing and drives and parking to be completed in December.

Facebook aerial view
In September, Facebook announced it would add three more buildings to its Newton Data Center complex by 2023. - photo by Special to The Covington News

No. 7 — Economic development strong despite pandemic

By Tom Spigolon |

Newton County had a favorable year for economic development in 2020 despite the virus slowing the overall economy.

The year began with a coup of sorts for Newton County industrial recruiters. 

German supermarket operator Lidl announced it planned to build a $100 million, 925,000-square-foot distribution center and regional headquarters in Newton County for its expanding supermarket chain.

The center was to create 270 jobs when completed by 2022.

Gov. Brian Kemp made the announcement in early January after the company said it chose to build in Newton rather than its previously announced location in Bartow County.

Site work began later in the year on land along I-20 in western Newton County at the Rockdale County line.

Lidl already employed 150 in stores in metro Atlanta and Augusta and operated 85 stores in nine eastern states.

In May, a series of announcements began that boosted companies and projects near the county’s industrial center centered around Alcovy Road and I-20.

Mytex Polymers US Corp. announced it planned to make a $7 million investment to expand its Newton County facility on Alcovy Road. The expansion will create 15 jobs.

Funcster, a long glass reinforced injection molded grade polypropylene, is the main Mytex product from Covington. It’s used for structural applications in automobiles or in conjunction with other materials such as PVC.

The company will build a new production line in its existing 140,000-square-foot space.

In June, the long-planned Covington Town Center saw the first of three announcements of hotels and apartments proposed for the 160-acre master planned development.

Covington Town Center has been in the works since 2016 on Alcovy Road at City Pond Road. Groundbreaking took place in early 2018 and was planned to include apartments and townhomes, office space, retail stores and restaurants.

On June 11, a division of Starlight Hotel Group LLC, announced it planned to invest more than $32 million to build a six-story, 123-room Residence Inn and a six-story, 99-room Courtyard by Marriott employing a total of 150. 

A 113-room Staybridge Suites Hotel was announced in September after Covington Partners LLC announced it was planning the $19 million investment, which will employ 40. Early 2022 was the targeted opening date.

A groundbreaking ceremony Dec. 17 for the Cove at Covington Town Center marked a major milestone in development of the project’s residential component. 

The Cove is planned as a 26-acre, $57 million apartment complex that will provide 350 “Class A” apartments starting in 2022.

In a separate development near Covington Town Center, film production support company Cinelease announced in early July it would join forces with Three Ring studios to create Cinelease Studios – Three Ring on Ga. Highway 142.

The 250,000-square-foot studio and production facility covers 160 acres and includes sound stages, stage support space, offices, mill space and hundreds of parking spaces.

Studio operators announced in October they were open for bookings as film productions began to start again after shutting down in March because of the pandemic.

Cinelease is a veteran film production support company providing lighting and sound equipment, among other services. 

Plans for Three Ring were first announced in 2017 and construction finally began two year later in October 2019.

In September, Facebook announced it would add three more buildings to its Newton Data Center complex by 2023.

Combined with two buildings now under construction, it will give the social media company a total of five buildings with 2.5 million square feet and represent a total $1 billion investment.

The social media company announced in 2018 it would begin construction on the first two buildings. It will include 970,000 square feet and employ about 50 when completed in 2021 in the Stanton Springs business park in northeast Newton County.

The additional buildings it announced in September will comprise nearly 1.5 million square feet and employ more than 200 for Facebook, officials said.

Work on the facility also has resulted in construction jobs for between 1,000 and 1,200 workers, said Katie Comer, community development regional manager for Facebook.

Also in September, General Mills announced it planned to add 40 jobs and boost production of its Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal at its newly expanded Covington facility at 15200 Industrial Park Blvd. NE.

The expansion project will help General Mills increase capacity and efficiency for producing one of the best-selling cereals in the U.S., Cinnamon Toast Crunch, at the Covington Plant.

The plant opened in 1989 and also is near the county’s industrial center surrounding Alcovy Road near I-20.

The Covington plant employs about 400 and is responsible for producing several varieties of cereal and snack products, the release stated. 

On Nov. 24, FiberVisions announced it planned to invest $48 million to expand its manufacturing operations and add 21 jobs at its Newton County plant in response to demand for hygiene products related to the pandemic.

Installation of the bicomponent fiber line is expected to be complete by the first half of 2021. Once renovations are complete, FiberVisions will be hiring for positions in advanced manufacturing.

The company, which is a subsidiary of Thailand-based Indorama Ventures Public Co. Ltd., employs about 230 at the Alcovy Road plant in Covington it has operated for 53 years.

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Pictured are Matt and Kristen Cooper. - photo by Special Photo

No. 8 — Officer Cooper reports for duty

By Mason Wittner |

Less than two years after being shot in the head while on duty, Officer Matt Cooper returned to work with the Covington Police Department.

Cooper’s life was forever altered on the afternoon of Sept. 3, 2018, when he responded to a call at the Walmart on Industrial Boulevard. While in pursuit of a shoplifting suspect, he suffered a gunshot wound to the head. The bullet clogged his carotid artery, clotting his blood and ultimately preserving his life while also causing a brain injury.

Following a multitude of operations and months of intense therapy, Cooper was officially cleared to return to duty for the CPD.

In preparation for a press conference via Zoom on Thursday, May 21, Matt Cooper sat on a black couch beside his wife, Kristen. Seated beneath a black and blue flag emblazoned with ‘148’ — Cooper’s badge number — in white, the Coopers expressed to reporters how excited they are for Matt to be back at work.

“I’ve been doing therapy for like a year and a half now, so to mix it up a little bit and be able to say I’m going back to work — even though it’s not full duty yet, but just being in the atmosphere — it felt really good,” Matt said. “It was like going back to school again.”

Officer Cooper was first assigned to the CPD’s Support Services department and helped out on the administrative side. While he’s made immense physical progress, he admitted that he still frequently finds himself struggling with mental fatigue. 

“Every day that passes is taxing on my mind,” Matt said. “I don’t know the right way to put it, but just trying to stay awake with a traumatic brain injury is my biggest challenge yet.”

Kristen opened up about the “whirlwind of emotions” she and her family had faced over the past 20 months, likening their journey to riding a roller coaster.

“Some moments we have are really good, and we’re like, ‘Yes! We’ve got this.’ And then others, it’s like, ‘OK, what just happened?’” she said. “I think we’ve kind of learned to acclimate to each situation.”

After being shot on Labor Day in 2018, Officer Cooper — a six-year veteran of the CPD at that time — was life-flighted to WellStar Atlanta Medical Center and spent over a week at Grady Memorial Hospital before transferring to Shepherd Center in Atlanta for rehabilitation. On Dec. 19, 2018, he graduated from the Shepherd Center’s inpatient brain injury rehabilitation program and returned home for the holidays.

In the months that followed, as he continued his recovery and rehabilitation process through occupational, physical and vision therapy, Matt noted that he found personal strength through a renewed relationship with God.

“There were many days I was broken during my recovery,” he said. “I just didn’t think I could do much more, mentally and physically. So I broke down and starting praying again and renewed my faith in God.”

He also thanked the CPD and local community for their willingness to jump in and support him in numerous ways throughout his journey.

“The community really stuck behind me in this whole process,” Matt said. “I was not able to take care of my family, but guys came by, cut our grass and helped us with stuff. Just being there as another support really helped me out, and I’m proud of that.”

Asked if this week had been a target date for Matt to make his return, he and Kristen both said they didn’t have a set date in mind. However, Matt was eager to get back to work.

Kristen was initially apprehensive about Matt returning to the line of duty, but was overwhelmed with joy when she saw how happy her husband was to report to the CPD on Monday.

“I definitely had some fears about him returning to work because for the past 20 months, my role has been to really be a protector of him. Whether it be his medical treatment, or his emotional health,” she said. “I’ve had to learn to kind of change my mindset also and know that he is going to make mistakes, and it’s OK. We can pick ourselves back up from them.”

Friday, May 22, was Matt Cooper Day in Georgia, a proclamation from Gov. Brian Kemp’s office that was first announced May 2019. 

Shootings rally
Rallies were held often on the Covington Square over the course of the summer of 2020 concerning topics including police brutality, Black Lives Matter and the Confederate monument located on the Square. - photo by File Photo

No. 9 — Rallies of summer

By Tom Spigolon |

Odds were good that weekend visitors to the Covington Square in June and July would stumble across any of a number of events in which organizers aired their opinions about recent governmental actions on the local and national levels.

If there was a central theme to all the events — organized by local residents on opposite ends of the political spectrum — it was an emphasis on letting their voices be heard at the polls in the 2020 elections.

Mostly young people turned out in Newton County to protest during three June events in the weeks following the now-infamous May 25 death of an unarmed Black Minnesota man at the hands of police.

The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, who died after being restrained by officers, touched off months of protests in some U.S. cities — including Atlanta where downtown landmarks like the CNN Center and government buildings were vandalized over the course of months.

In Newton County, two Eastside High School graduates organized separate, peaceful protest marches and demonstrations in June in and around the Covington Square to air their concerns and emphasize the need for voting in the year’s elections.

Timothy Birt, a 22-year-old graduate of Eastside High School, said he felt led to organize a peaceful protest following a prayer session June 3.

Birt urged those in attendance to remain nonviolent and express their frustration through words rather 

than physical actions. He also emphasized the importance of voting and called for unity.

Three days later, fellow Eastside graduate Kalene Heilesen, 19, organized a demonstration against police brutality in America and encourage the community to unite behind the Black Lives Matter movement.

Hundreds of protestors showed up on the Covington Square to march around sidewalks, lying facedown for eight minutes and 46 seconds — the amount of time a police officer kept his knee on Floyd’s neck before he died — and chanting, “I can’t breathe.”

Birt then organized a third demonstration but connected it to the annual June 19 celebration of Juneteenth in Covington.

The event was the first to feature participants walking along downtown streets and brought a heavy police presence to protect both marchers and speakers on the square, officials said.

About 200 Black and white attendees walked along Brown, Clark, Church and Ivy streets chanting slogans like “Black Lives Matter” before giving prepared and impromptu speeches about their experiences with other races and law enforcement at the Covington Square.

The following month, organizers of another series of events took on a different topic: the proposed removal of a century-old Confederate memorial statue from the park in the middle of the Covington Square.

(Editor’s note: The weekend edition will recount the issue surrounding the statue’s removal, which we ranked No. 2 in our 2020 Rewind.)

River search 1
Members of a joint state and local water rescue team work to find two drowning victims Aug. 11 in the Alcovy River at Factory Shoals Park in south Newton County. - photo by Courtesy of the Newton County Sheriff's Office

No. 10 — Disasters strike across Newton

By Taylor Beck |

The calendar year of 2020 hasn’t been kind to many people across the nation with much of the blame being pointed toward COVID-19. However, the novel coronavirus wasn’t the only resemblance of disaster to strike in Newton County.

First responders rescue six from flood waters

Members of the Covington/Newton County Dive Team waded through icy and rising flood waters from the Yellow River on Feb. 7 to rescue six people trapped in their homes at the Riverside Estates Mobile Home and Travel Trailer Park on the Access Road in Covington.

Newton County Fire Battalion Chief Joe Cagle said firefighters were dispatched to the park on a report of a person trapped in a camper. While authorities were on the scene, more people were reportedly trapped.

Newton Fire Lt. Tim Martin and Fire Apparatus Operator Bret Madsen donned dry suits and using a boat rescued the initial victim before conducting a door to door search of the flooded area. No injuries were reported.

One of the rescued victims, Billy New, said of the firefighters, “They did a great job.”

According to Newton County Emergency Management Agency Director Jody Nolan,  the team is made up of public safety personnel from Covington and Newton County and is funded by the EMA.

Two drown in Alcovy River

A Covington resident’s efforts to save his girlfriend’s son from drowning Aug. 11 ended tragically for both in the Alcovy River.

Members of a local and state water rescue team recovered the bodies of Covington residents Antonio Perry, 38, and Dejerein Grier, 14, from the river adjacent to Factory Shoals Park in south Newton County. 

Family members reported the two missing after both went under the water around 7 p.m., said Sheriff Ezell Brown.

“(Responding deputies) were told the teenage son had gone out swimming and the teenage son appeared to have gotten in a … challenging mode with the waters,” Brown said.

Perry then went out into the water to rescue the teen “and he was succumbed by the waters, as well,” Brown said.

Media reports said family members had gathered at the park for a day of fun and relaxation. The mother of Grier and girlfriend of Perry, Tonya Hardeman, also was there, Fox5 News reported.

Brown said the group had been “to another area and they left that area and they chose to come to this last area where they were all together again.”

“They were just going to enjoy, have fun,” he said.

The Newton-Covington Dive Team was called in to search after the incident occurred but called off their efforts because of darkness.

The team resumed its search Aug. 12 and found Perry but ended the search because of heavy thunderstorms, said spokeswoman Caitlin Jett of the Newton County Sheriff’s Office.

The team then resumed the search of the river Aug. 13 and found Grier, Jett said

Brown said he wanted the families of the victims to know “that they have our greatest sympathies for their loss — especially during these times.” 

He noted concerns about COVID-19 had forced changes in how funerals are conducted.

“Any time is a bad time, but these times are unprecedented times that you do not have the opportunity to really mourn and cannot have a traditional funeral,” Brown said. “It’s tough, and I want the families to know that.”

The Dive Team is a joint effort of the Newton County Sheriff’s Office, Newton County Fire Services, Covington Fire Department, Georgia Department of Natural Resources Law Enforcement, and Georgia Emergency Management Agency, Jett said. 

Fire displaces Covington apartment residents

An Oct. 28 fire displaced about 20 residents after an air conditioning unit caught fire at an apartment complex near downtown Covington.

Covington Fire Department responded to an 11:34 p.m. fire call at Harrisburg Park apartments at 2140 Conyers St. and found the air conditioning unit caused sprinklers to turn on and cause extensive water damage in a third floor hallway, said Donnie Tudor, deputy chief of operations for the department.

Two Newton County Fire Department units assisted city firefighters in responding with two ladder trucks, two engines, a rescue squad unit and two battalion units. No injuries were reported.

Tudor said the American Red Cross assisted the displaced residents by finding overnight housing at an area motel.  

Tornado hits Covington homeless shelter

Director Clara Lett stood outside what was left of the Rainbow Community Shelter building Oct. 12.

She said she had been in the shelter’s doorway five minutes before a tornado hit the building without warning two days earlier.

“I’d just drove off and got around that corner and they said a tornado had hit,” she said.

The National Weather Service reported a tornado touched down in Covington and ran for about 1.4 miles Oct. 10.

Police reported it uprooted some trees but only caused one minor injury — to a volunteer at the homeless shelter when the tornado hit the building off Turner Lake Road about 5:15 p.m., said Covington Police spokesman Capt. Ken Malcom.

The EF-1 tornado was tracked from Washington Street and Walker Bend Parkway to Woodhaven Drive near I-20 in western Covington, according to the National Weather Service.

An EF-1 has estimated wind speeds of 73 to 112 mph, according to the NWS.

The tornado downed trees along its path, including in the area of Brown Bridge Road and Turner Lake Road near the Rainbow shelter, a local official said. Downed trees also caused some power outages in western Newton County, Snapping Shoals EMC reported.

The storm was the remnants of Hurricane Delta that struck the coast of Louisiana and prompted several tornado warnings across Georgia.