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Plans continue for Walkers Bend center
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Covington received a $1.79 million state grant to build the proposed 40,000 sq. ft. apartment building and community center in Walker's Bend.

The money comes from the third installment of the Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP 3), and was a pleasant surprise, as the city's original grant application asked for only $1.08 million.

The additional $709,615 was needed though, as the city missed out on another $800,000 state grant it thought it would get.

That $800,000 was a Community Development Block Grant from the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, but the agency apologetically said that on review the mixed-use building in Walker's Bend didn't qualify.

The $800,000 was intended to fund a business incubator on the first floor of the building, but those plans will have to be scrapped, Covington Planning Director Randy Vinson said Monday.

The NSP 3 money must be used for residential purposes, so instead of two business units, the building will receive two two-bedroom apartments. The top three stories of the four-story building will house 30 other apartments, which will be rented out by the Covington Housing Authority.

Vinson said the commercial component in the form of a business incubator was still important and could be done separately either in a building across the street from the proposed building or at the front entrance to Walker's Bend, directly on Washington Street. He said a business incubator would likely fair better directly on a main commercial corridor, as opposed to tucked back into a neighborhood. However, separate funding will have to be found.

The building's 32 apartments are expected to be filled fairly easily. Housing Authority Executive Director Greg Williams said in a Sept. 30 email that the housing authority is full and has "a very long waiting list" for its subsidized housing In addition, the soon-to-open Harristown Park, an $8.4 million senior affordable living complex, has a waiting list of more than 427 people.

The rent rate for Walker's Bend apartments has not yet been set.

The city of Covington is only acting on a pass through for the NSP 3 money, as the building will actually be a combined venture between the housing authority and Newton County.

The county will contribute $545,000 of 2011 SPLOST money which was designated to build a workforce development center in District 4 - Commissioner J.C. Henderson's district. Part of the first floor of the Walker's Bend building will be a community center, where job training classes and life skills counseling will be offered through a partnership between the Newton County Minister's Union and DeKalb Technical College.

Vinson said county Chairman Kathy Morgan and a county attorney felt this would be a good way to spend the District 4 SPLOST money, because the center was a clearly defined use. The original intention behind the District 4 SPLOST money was vague.

Original plans called for the building to cost $3.6 million, but it's unknown if or how the elimination of the business incubator will affect that cost. At the $3.6 million price, the housing authority would have to take out a $825,000 loan to cover the full cost. The city will have to back this loan, which caused Councilman Chris Smith concern. He was the lone vote in opposition to accepting the NSP 3 money (the vote was 5-1 in favor).

The county and housing authority would be in charge of maintenance, but the hope is the rent from the apartments will provide enough money to pay for maintenance.

Vinson said the cost and scale of the project can be reduced if needed.

While the city won't own the building, it is a major proponent.

Covington has been working to revitalize Walker's Bend for the past few years, because city officials saw it as a neighborhood on the brink of becoming a slum.

The city and a private developer are planning to build dozens of high-quality single-family homes in the neighborhood over the next few years, and the mixed-use building would be a welcome part of their plans.