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 third installment, Commissioner Nancy Schulz explains why her district is a complex juggling act.
No district in Newton County is more dichotomous than District 3. Its northern section is a conservative stronghold, filled with wealthier, older, predominantly white, long-time Newton County residents living on larger tracts of land. The southern half by comparison is much denser, much newer, less wealthy and more racially diverse.
Residents in the two halves want different things, and pleasing both groups is at best difficult and at worst impossible.
A resident of Newton County for 17 years, Commissioner Nancy Schulz has seen the rapid growth and the change of the last two decades. In her first year in office, she’s experienced just how difficult navigating that divide can be.
We started our tour at the Oaks Golf Course, run by Schulz and her husband Dick, and immediately headed to Mount Tabor Road. Schulz stopped to fill up her gas tank and bring the welcome news that the bridge on Mount Tabor had been reopened. Mount Tabor and a few other area roads had been closed for the past couple of months as a result of September’s floods, and business owners have been hit hard by reduced traffic.
Schulz herself said the Oaks suffered greatly while Crowell Road was closed, and the recent continued rain hasn’t helped matters. The flooding highlights one of the county’s most important features, the Yellow River. A natural resource that brings both risks and opportunities, the river flows throughout much of District 3. While the county has recently experienced the worst aspects of the river, Schulz said she hopes leaders will soon be able to capitalize on its recreational and tourism appeal.
Continuing north we passed by the historic Almon community. Schulz said there is a close-knit community of families in Almon, anchored by Shiloh Methodist Church and the Almon community center. Although it will be difficult, Schulz said building that type of community is something she hopes to do throughout the district.
Churches are often important community builders, and Schulz said that Springfield Baptist Church, headed by Pastor Eric Lee, is planning to build a mega-church on Sockwell Road. She said church members hope it will be a spiritual anchor in that part of the county.
Further north, The Berry Tree Farm on Mount Tabor Road, which sells many evergreens during this time of a year, is one of the oldest local businesses in this region.
Curving a little to the west, we began to enter horse territory. Several neighborhoods displayed yellow warning signs cautioning drivers to be aware of people riding horses. Schulz said horse farms are abundant in the northern part of the county and many people own larger, 5-acre tracts which they use to raise and ride these equine mammals. With the Georgia International Horse Park just next door in Rockdale County, these residents have abundant opportunities to participate in recreational or competitive events.
Although there has been a lot of growth in the northern part of the district, there are many older, life-long residents of Newton County who live there. Many retirees who used to work in Rockdale and Gwinnett counties now call this northwestern section home. By and large, the northern part of District 3 has a larger white population and is generally wealthier.
Schulz said the residents in this Republican stronghold don’t want much government interference. They don’t want to pay increased taxes, but do want the roads to be kept up and high quality schools.
Traveling south along 81 we pass through District 4 before coming to Turner Lake Road, which again marks the border of Schulz’s district. All of the popular Turner Lake Recreation Complex is in Schulz’s district. Many of the people just outside the city of Covington, like those on Brown Bridge Road, have been in Newton County for a long time. Her Oaks Golf Course itself has been around since the 1930s, back when community icon B.C. Crowell worked for Bibb Manufacturing.
However, as we headed further west along Brown Bridge, we began to see the part of the district that mirrors District 2. Much of Salem Road has been developed over the last 15 years, and while there are pockets of commercial development, the majority of this area is residential.
There are some rentals in this area and Schulz said the amount of rental property is increasing as investors scoop up cheap homes in a depressed market. Like other newer, dense areas, this southern section suffers from numerous foreclosures, as well as increased traffic and crime. Roads like Kirkland and Fairview are lined with neighborhood after new neighborhood.
The county chose this area and the Fairview Estates neighborhood for its Neighborhood Stabilization Plan, an ongoing saga that eats up much of Schulz’s time these days. But Schulz said the Fairview Estates situation brings many issues out into the open, including the plight of homeowners who have been abandoned by developers. Because many developments were left half-finished, residents in this part of the district are constantly clamoring for more amenities. However, they’re also very cognizant of the threat of even more traffic, noise and crime.
Schulz said their main issues are roads, code enforcement and foreclosures, crime and the desire for large parks and swimming pools. Many of these residents come from Atlanta and other large cities and are used to more amenities than Newton County has historically provided.
The diversity of people and expectations differ greatly within this part of the district as well.
"I had always been told that the people who moved to Newton County were from surrounding counties in Georgia, but when I was campaigning I found a substantial amount of people from out of state. They thought this was an idyllic place, or they wanted move close to their kids and grandchildren," Schulz said. "Like the Trelawney subdivision. They moved a whole neighborhood from New Jersey into there."
So many new and different people mixing with life-long residents has created some culture clash. Schulz said it can be difficult brining the two sides together.
"My goal is to figure out how to unify these groups. When I campaigned I knocked on maybe 5,000 doors, and I saw a real disconnect in understanding. There were a lot of misconceptions" she said.
While residents in the southern section generally are less wealthy and are afflicted by higher crime rates they are by no means low-income, high-crime people, Schulz said.
"There are elements of that, but the majority of people are well-educated. It bothers me that we have these perceptions," she said.
Schulz said part of the reason why the per-capita income of the area has dropped is that many new residents are older, retired people who live on a fixed income. She said her district also has a higher number of single women, who are college-educated, heads of their household, but likely still make less on average than their male peers.
While some of those in the north misunderstand the people in the south, the southern residents simply know very little about the rest of the county.
"Many of them only come into Covington for taxes and tags," she said.
Schulz said in addition to bridging that gap, her main priority is to increase commercial development. She said the pockets of stores in her district are not enough to sustain the growing population. The district’s keystone commercial development, the Kroger plaza on Salem Road, has nearly 30 vacant storefronts, more than the number of operating stores.
Schulz said she wants to see the Almon-Crowell Road Corridor grow into a town-like center with some medium and higher-end businesses. She said she also hopes the county will soon consider holding a public referendum on alcohol sales, although she thinks it would be best if those sales were kept within town-center areas.
Finally, she hopes the county can bring in some more modern science and technology-related industries to give many of the county’s college graduates a local place to work. She said growth is coming, and she believes the county needs to put strong ordinances in place to direct that development.