COVINGTON, Ga. — Despite a year in which a pandemic led the county government to close its doors to the public for months and the community lost some longtime leaders, the county chairman says he saw numerous positive things that came out of 2020.
The county’s economic development efforts produced dividends that included a new regional distribution center and planned expansions of existing industries that promise hundreds of new jobs.
Newton County government also never stopped operating despite the challenges the pandemic posed, said Marcello Banes, chairman of the Newton County Board of Commissioners.
“Our county government hasn’t missed a beat,” he said.
He said the leadership of the various department heads and County Manager Lloyd Kerr resulted in little disruption in its operation.
"We have great people in place," he said. “We have really great leadership."
Banes said he was glad the county government could help directly fund the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce’s economic development office after the Chamber chose to stop offering the service.
The county formerly had paid the Chamber for its industrial recruitment operation before the organization voted in December 2019 to focus more on its membership.
"We were able to step in and provide funding for that team," Banes said. "To be able to keep that team in place ... was great for our community."
The Newton County Board of Commissioners and the Newton County Industrial Development Authority then forged an intergovernmental agreement early in 2020 which moved the economic development operation to county control.
The year then brought announcements of new industries and expansions by existing employers that will add new jobs for county residents, he said.
It also will provide tax revenue that will remove some of the burden for funding basic services off the backs of existing homeowners, Banes said.
The county celebrated the announcement of Lidl planning a $100 million regional distribution center that will employ 270 in western Newton County. Facebook also announced it was planning more buildings for its massive data center near Social Circle that will bring its total investment in Newton County to $1 billion, he said.
Existing industries like FiberVision and General Mills also planned increased production capacity for its products.
"Those are things that our citizens can be proud of," Banes said.
Banes said he was glad the county and its Emergency Management Agency were able to work so closely with District Health Director Dr. Audrey Arona of the Gwinnett Rockdale Newton Health Departments to develop plans for dealing with the pandemic throughout the year.
The county closed the Newton County Administration Building, Historic Courthouse, Animal Services and Turner Lake Complex to the public in March and did not reopen fully until late summer and early fall because of concerns about the spread of the virus.
He said he was happy the county government in 2020 was able to move toward expanding services such as fire protection for homeowners and businesses, and make key additions to its senior services and animal service facilities.
"We didn't allow COVID to stop us from moving forward," he said.
The county government used Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) funds to complete expansions to its senior services building near Turner Lake, and its animal shelter facility near Porterdale late in the year.
The county government also began construction of a new fire station on Gum Creek Road to serve the north Oxford area; renovated a former volunteer fire station on Georgia Hwy. 162 in the Rocky Plains area to create a new station to serve part of south Newton; and bought land for construction of a new station on Big Woods Road in the Starrsville community to serve part of eastern Newton.
The new stations will decrease county fire department response times and, ultimately, lower insurance rates for property owners, Banes said.
Banes said a number of non-governmental developments occurred in 2020 which gave him hope that the county's quality of life will continue to improve in the future.
He noted it was almost impossible to "fill their shoes" after leaders like businessman and former Covington mayor Sam Ramsey and Superior Court Judge Horace Johnson Jr. died in 2020 — both of whom were heavily active in the community as well as their professions.
However, Banes said he was glad "a new group" of community leaders "stepped up" in 2020 to seek positions in state and local governments and business — resulting in new judges and a district attorney, new county elected officials and new members of the county's Georgia General Assembly delegation, among others.
In addition, the county continues to see tourists spend their money here as they travel to Newton to see sites made famous in movies and TV — which helps keep Covington's historic downtown area a bustling retail and dining area, Banes said.