Amid all the talk about developing more qualified workers to handle the jobs of today and tomorrow, Newton County celebrated the grand opening of its newest workforce development center Thursday.
The $3 million New Leaf Center is a mixed-use building with 28 residential units and space on the first floor for workforce training. It’s located in the Walker’s Bend neighborhood off Washington Street.
The city of Covington and private companies have invested millions of dollars in new housing initiatives in the neighborhood after the city said it made it a priority to prevent the neighborhood from becoming a slum. The New Leaf Center is the latest building, but additional public ventures are planned in the neighborhood.
The New Leaf Center has two classrooms and a large, multi-purpose room on the first floor, which will house New Leaf Visions, a workforce development program sponsored by the city of Covington and the Covington Housing Authority.
The six-week workforce training program recently completed its pilot program with seven graduates, two or three of whom Covington Mayor Ronnie Johnston said could be hired at his Mystic Grill restaurant on the square.
The training program is run by Shamica Redding, who has been teaching financial responsibility classes for the city and her own nonprofit, Energema, the past few years; Redding also previously worked for Georgia Power and The Center for Community Preservation and Planning, a group that focuses on future planning in Newton County with local governments and agencies.
Redding and a group of several other professors and professional trainers teach a wide variety of classes, including computer training, OSHA and manufacturing orientation certification, how to successfully apply for jobs, appropriate workplace behavior, and even work/life balance and money management.
After graduating from the course, participants meet with an individual coach for an additional 12 months to help them adjust to new jobs and prepare for future advancement.
The Northeast Georgia Regional Commission will pay costs for five students for the next course. Redding said the cost per student is expected to be a little more than $3,500. Because of the commission’s participation, the program is open to all residents in the 12-county northeast region.
Redding said the next program will start in late January. For more information or to sign up, visit newleafvisions.org or call 770-728-6065. Redding hopes to have around 20 people in the new class. Because it meets during the day, five days a week, the program is recommended for those who are unemployed.
Why the center matters
Hunter Hall, president of the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce, said the workforce center creates another option to educate residents. He used the analogy of a bicycle’s pedal and chains to describe workforce development, saying the workforce center added another link to a chain that already includes the family, K-12 education, the local career academy, industry-specific training, technical colleges and traditional colleges.
The idea for a new workforce center originated with the Newton County Ministers Union, a nonprofit pastors’ group that works on various community initiatives. The Rev. Willie J. Smith, director of the Ministers Union, said he and others discussed how to help the community and sought SPLOST funding from the county. Originally, the group hoped for $1.5 million, but received $500,000, and from there the city of Covington and Housing Authority added funding to make the building a reality. The city contributed $1.79 million in state Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP) grant money, while the Housing Authority borrowed approximately $700,000, which will be paid back with rental income from the residential apartments.
“It’s been a joy to see it come this far,” Smith said Tuesday. “We’re going to put people to work and get them qualified to get the jobs out there.”
Officials from the Georgia Dept. of Community Affairs – the agency that gave out NSP funding – were on hand, and local officials weren’t shy in saying they’ll be looking for more state partnerships moving forward. Some ideas in the original building concept that weren’t carried over were a small business incubator and a commercial kitchen; those could be added in future buildings, officials said previously, as the Covington Redevelopment Authority owns land across the street from the center.
County Chairman Keith Ellis praised the cooperation between the city and county and said he hopes the center will make a difference.
“Ever since we got Baxter (International), we’ve been told we don’t have the workforce ready (to take those jobs),” Ellis said. “Shamica, we appreciate you taking that on.”
Covington Mayor Ronnie Johnston said he might hire two to three of the initial graduates from the workforce training program for his Mystic Grill restaurant.
“You could tell they came through a course. They came prepared. They dressed well, came confident, shook hands. That is a big part of the whole thing. If you don’t have the infrastructure in place, you’re not going to make it,” Johnston said.
Covington councilwomen Janet Goodman and Hawnethia Williams both praised the value of education and said they were excited about the center’s ability to improve the city, while Commissioner J.C. Henderson said he hoped the workforce program would help to lower the county’s unemployment rate.
Part of the first floor and the second and third floors of the New Leaf Center will have residential apartments, with 23 one-bedroom and five two-bedroom units, including some handicap-accessible units.
One-bedroom units will rent for $550 a month and two-bedroom units for $650 per month. The apartments are not rent-subsidized.
Redding, who will also help manage the apartments, said applications will be officially accepted Jan. 3; they can be picked up at the center, 6147 Avery St., Covington. The apartments do have income qualification limits, but the limits are fairly high for the majority of units, as only 25 percent of the units are being set aside for low-income residents.