Covington News reporter Gabriel Khouli toured the five county districts, with the county commissioners as his guide, to learn more about the people and places of Newton County. In this fifth and final installment, Commissioner Tim Fleming, by far the county’s youngest elected official, takes us on a tour of the second largest district.
District 5 has several distinctive features, but one of the most beloved is the number of large, beautiful antebellum homes that line Floyd and Monticello streets. Legend has it that while General William T. Sherman burned much of Georgia during his March to the Sea, he spared these homes because of their beauty.
These homes are among the largest and most expensive in the county and have historically been home to the county’s biggest players. However, although that area is affluent and still houses much of the old establishment, Fleming said many of the influential players are now spread throughout the county.
District 5 is also home to Newton County’s crown jewel, the square. The scenic southern setting is a county icon, tourism stop and a major draw for movies and television series. Frequent parades and events, like the recent lighting of the square, make it one of the focal points of the county.
However, the square and east Covington comprise only a small part of the county’s second largest district. District 5 is one of the most oddly shaped districts covering a significant portion of the northern and southern halves of Newton, with a connecting sliver through Covington.The fifth district also contains part of the county’s main commercial corridor on U.S. Highway 278 and some of the largest industries near exit 93 on Interstate 20. Although the industries deal mainly with Covington and Chamber officials, Fleming said he makes sure to check with them on a regular basis.
"There is a lot of talk about bringing in new businesses, but we can’t underestimate the importance of keeping existing industry here and happy. We need to look at the quality of life and education. The businesses I talk to say they want a workforce with more education, education and education."
Although the economy is struggling, he said the recent announcement of an SKC Inc. expansion shows the strength of the existing industries. He said SKC uses less than a 100 of its 400 acres, so he hopes the polyurethane film production company will continue to expand in the years ahead.
Turning northeast on Hazelbrand Road from Ga. Highway 142, the district turns more rural and large woods line much of the road. The Georgia Wildlife Federation has a center out here, and many of the residents are farmers or retired. Fleming said there are also large, long-held family lots here and many younger generations move back and build their own homes on the property.
Residents in this part of the district are similar to rural residents around the county.
"They want to keep what they have," Fleming said. "They don’t want cookie-cutter homes out here; they want quality development. These people are vocal and they stay involved."
Continuing north to the Walton County line, we drive across one of the most scenic parts of Newton County — Lake Varner. Fleming said Newton has been blessed with sufficient water, which will become an ever more valuable resource and commodity in future years. Fleming said he often uses the quote, ‘He who holds the water holds the power.’
Lake Varner is also a great location for boating, fishing and walking on nature trails, Fleming said, but many people don’t know about all of these opportunities.
Some growth has occurred up north, but it’s unlikely to ever be a development hotspot because of the cost of constructing on granite. Fleming said there are subdivisions here and there, but in general the cost has proven to be prohibitive. That’s also proven to be the case with commercial development, and many residents choose to go to Conyers, Loganville or Monroe, instead of Covington. Fleming said the county will have to decide where it wants to directs commercial growth in the north.
There are several timber and even chicken farms up here. Near the border of District 3, there are some forests that have been clear cut, not leaving aesthetic remains. The practice isn’t common, but is a quick way to make a lot of money, he said.
Instead of traveling back around Covington, we drove south on Ga. Highway 81, cutting through Oxford and Covington, and entering the county’s third largest municipality of Porterdale. With an estimated 2008 population under 2,000, Porterdale remains small and is a city in flux.
The city was a big cotton mill town, but since Bibb Manufacturing Co. left in 1970, the city has become dilapidated. Fleming said strong city leaders have made successful strides to renovate Main Street, but more improvement is needed.
Fleming said besides reviving their city, leaders there want a larger voice at the county discussion table.
"They see Covington as having a lot of power and they want equality … to be part of the picture. We’re all in this together, but we haven’t always acted like that," he said.
One of the city and county’s biggest priorities is the four-way stop intersection at Highway 81 and Crowell Road, one of county’s most crowded. However, with the DOT broke and local governments in a financial strain, the project has been stalled in the planning stages for years. Fleming said he hopes some more money can be set aside in 2011 SPLOST.
Heading further south, the county once again becomes more rural. One of the more important sites here is the county’s landfill. Always a point of contention for surrounding residents because of gases and odors, Fleming said the county has made efforts over the years to reduce those problems.
The landfill takes everything, including lawn waste, metal, cardboard and recyclables. Fleming said the county is fortunate to make so much room to serve the county’s needs for several years to come.
Large lots, farmers and historic family plots draw parallels to the rural north. Mary Jane Dixon and her family are one of the largest land owners in this area and she owns numerous timber farms.
"Land is a big part of who these people are. It has been in the family for a long time, and they want to be able to continue to hand that down," Fleming said.
Mote Road, south of Porterdale, is home to a historic black community, including community leaders like Forrest Sawyer Jr. Fleming said his community is more homogenous than the western districts and around 25 percent of residents are minorities.
Circling back around to Covington, we pass by the Ga. Highway 36 and Covington ByPass intersection. Fleming said this is a budding commercial area that will hopefully see more growth. This area is fairly well populated with older neighborhoods and is close to the municipalities.
Balancing the desires of historic land owners with increased residential and commercial growth will be one of the Fleming’s most important challenges as District 5 continues to evolve.