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Civic center talks pick up in Baxter wake
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The long-awaited Covington civic center isn't close to being built as the project lacks funding and a firm site, but talks have renewed following the arrival of mega-medical industry Baxter International and a new site option that would also house a proposed agricultural center.

A combined $37 million hotel ¬and civic/conference project in downtown Covington was on the verge of being finalized in August 2008, but then the economy collapsed, the lending market dried up and the project was left to lay dormant.
Baxter's plans to open a $1 billion plant in Newton and employ 1,500 workers by 2018 has renewed community leaders' efforts to enhance the county's amenities in the hopes of attracting the company's skilled workers and executives and tying the company to Newton.

While downtown Covington, on Elm Street next to the county's administration building, remains the preferred site, other options have been discussed in recent months.

Bypass Road site
County resident Freddie Neely is willing to donate approximately 55 acres along the Covington Bypass Road, next to Covington Ford and the rock quarry and across from El Charro and Zaxby's, to the county or city to be used to house both the civic center and proposed agricultural center, said Neely's attorney Philip Johnson. The public approved $5 million for the civic center on the 2005 SPLOST, while the agricultural center project received $1.1 million on the 2011 SPLOST.

The deal is being pitched as a win-win, because the public would get free land, while the rest of Neely's land, 210-plus acres, would become prime commercial property by being located next to major facilities like the agricultural and civic centers.

"What it does is adds an enormous amount of synergy to the corridor and the rest of the site," Johnson said. "If you could make the centerpiece of those two facilities that will be as frequently used as the civic and agricultural center, obviously you get a halo effect on the rest of the property. It's not solely altruistic, but there is definitely some civic pride and interest.

"The agricultural center is really interesting, because it will consolidate all the various departments that have anything to do with agriculture together and provide them with facilities. It's something that came in on the last SPLOST proposal, and it needs a large piece of land," Johnson said.

The agricultural center would receive the majority of the land, 40 acres, while the civic center would only need around six acres.

Johnson said he and Neely are preparing to make a presentation to the agricultural center's SPLOST committee.

County Chairman Kathy Morgan could not be reached for comment Monday or Tuesday.

"We do believe, and I tell people this all the time, you can see the Bypass Road sort of gelling as the new commercial district for Covington, the premier commercial strip," Johnson said. "We think this would set the tone for everything that is to follow."

Some officials, however, believe the center needs to be located downtown, including Covington Mayor Ronnie Johnston, though he specified he was speaking personally and not on behalf of the city.

While there are some original issues that would have to be worked out with a downtown spot, namely parking, Johnston said he believes the civic center is a better fit downtown. He agrees the Bypass Road will become a premier commercial corridor, and it's for that reason, he wants to see the property developed commercially.

"That spot could be better used by others, commercial, restaurants, upscale shopping. That would be an incredible addition to the whole area," Johnston said. "I believe we're going to be able to attract at a higher level than used to."

Another question where opinions differ is whether an agricultural center, which would presumably be used for the storage and showing of animals, would be appropriate next to a civic center.

Center still viable
The civic center was originally proposed by the Arts Association in Newton County a way to boost the local economy and attract more businesses. The project's scope continued to grow during the mid-2000s, with the final iteration being a combined $37 million hotel and civic/conference center totaling 165,800 square feet.

However, the $37 million price tag in 2008 was largely inflated by pumped up construction material costs during the height of the housing boom. The original cost of the same basic project in 2006 was $24 million.

While the hotel accounted for a large chunk of the costs, the civic center was still the main piece, and as it
stands, the county only has $5 million in SPLOST monies dedicated to the project.

"Five million dollars doesn't build a facility any way you look at. We need partnership. Originally it was proposed as city-county partnership and a public-private partnership," said Arts Association Executive Director Buncie Lanners.

The main idea behind the civic center was that Newton County simply didn't have any large meeting space or performing arts facility.

"Would we like to see the project happen? Absolutely. And do we think it could be an economic engine for the city and county? Absolutely," Lanners said. "It would need to be, obviously not just an arts facility, a community facility, a corporate facility, something used by local industries for meetings. There could be many different meetings and groups; all kinds of things could happen."

Lanners said she and others are open to locating a civic center where feasible. She said the group or business that is willing to provide substantial funding for the project will have a large say in where that goes, whether it's a private developer or a local industry.

"I don't think anything is out of the discussion," Lanners said. "A plan will have to be put together to make it work, and that new plan is open. It can include a lot of different options, but I think it will take a lot of people at the table, not just one entity saying we can build this."

One spot proposed a few months ago by community leader Pierce Cline was Georgia Perimeter College, though with the college's new-found money troubles, that option isn't feasible in the short term.

"It appeared to some of us in the community that if we couldn't have the center in Covington it was better to have it at GPC than to not have it at all," Cline said, noting that GPC and area schools both had need of auditorium space.

Regardless of location, Lanners' main concern is preparing Covington for the opportunities that could follow Baxter's announcement.

"With Baxter coming in, there's the potential for not just new industry, but as importantly, new people coming with that industry; new jobs and employees that Newton County and Covington need to be drawing to live within our county.

That is of utmost importance for all of us, our schools, our quality of life," Lanners said. "We know that we have to build the infrastructure so that they want to be here. We believe that this project can be a catalyst for that."