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Newton could be hub for medical biz
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Correction: The four-county Stanton Springs Industrial Park is jointly owned by Newton, Walton, Morgan and Jasper counties.

Board of Commissioners Chairman Keith Ellis has a vision for Newton County and it comes in the form of a big map fastened to a 3x4-foot board. Thin purple lines form a huge diamond encompassing Newton, Jasper, Walton and Morgan counties. Ellis dreams that one day those counties will be what he calls a "Research Diamond," a hub for medical research, hospitals, medical device makers and bioscience giants like Baxter.

"My dream is that we will have a Research Diamond that is to medicine what North Carolina’s Research Triangle is to computer technology," Ellis said. "Of course, first, we want to make sure Baxter has a soft landing in Covington. We hope that will reassure other companies in the medical industry."

Ellis attached logo stickers to the map indicating the locations of schools that could be good potential research partners for a medical firm, including Emory University, Mercer University and Georgia Tech. He added stickers on access points on I-20, Covington’s airport, community colleges and other amenities that would aid a research park. Ellis worked for 15 years as a developer, and 15 years as a schoolteacher, before he ran for the BOC.

He emphasizes that the idea is preliminary and looks forward to getting input from the commissioners and other leaders. One renowned economic developer contacted by The News already seems enthused about a vision for a Research Diamond.

New Mexico economic developer Mark Lautman recently spoke at a Covington workforce summit. His online bio states that he has recruited 15,000 jobs and $11 billion in investments for clients.

"The analogy with the Research Triangle in North Carolina is a good one," Lautman said. "North Carolina was able to convince IBM and other high tech firms to create a research park in an enormous open space that was near University of North Carolina and Duke — and I-40."

Even though Emory and Georgia Tech are a bit outside of the diamond, Lautman said they are close enough to partner effectively with corporate scientists and medical researchers inside the diamond. Lautman said the diamond vision meshes well with Covington’s 2050 plan, as Covington is on I-20 and has an airport that already accommodates corporate jets.

"We could take a commercial jet; we took an AirTran once when it had to do an emergency landing," airport engineer Vincent Passariello told The News.

The Locke Foundation, which describes itself as a non-partisan Raleigh research firm, funded a history of the Research Triangle’s creation. It offers some insights into how that vision became reality. The University of North Carolina first pushed the idea in 1952 for a Research Triangle that forges partnerships between the area’s universities and computer technology firms.

As the Civil Rights movement grew and intensified, many developers balked at locating in the South, the study reads. Triangle supporters had to convince the high tech sector that North Carolina would welcome diversity and trail-blazing science. Gov. Luther Hodges’ 1956 endorsement of the triangle was cited as a turning point.

The fundraising for the "Research Triangle Institute was formed in 1958 and operated independently from the area universities," the study reads. "In a year, RTI had raised $1.5 million … and five companies located to Research Triangle Park at the end of 1959."

Ellis’ hope stems from Gov. Nathan Deal’s efforts to bring Baxter to Covington when the town was competing against a North Carolina locale.

"Gov. Deal offered tax incentives and his tireless support," Ellis said. Ellis pointed to an area of southern Newton County and said, "He spent boyhood summers near here, at the Future Farmers of America camp, so I think he really has an emotional bond with the area."

Gov. Deal’s spokesman Brian Robinson emailed this reply.

"Gov. Deal holds up the recruitment of Baxter to Newton as one of the signature achievements of his first term," Robinson wrote. "He firmly believes that Georgia is fertile ground for this industry because of our excellent research institutions, such as UGA, Georgia Tech and Emory, a highly skilled workforce, our diverse population and our favorable business climate. He hopes that Baxter will serve as a magnet that brings additional companies to this region."

Lautman offers a bit of advice for Covington, "Remember, branding is different from a vision for the future. Branding is the town’s personality, the town square, the famous people who grew up there, the beauty of the landscape. You preserve your brand when you execute your vision."

When Ellis looks at his diamond map, he sees ways to build wisely without disrupting the lush, green, rural areas. After all, those ponds, forests, flowers and rolling green hills are amenities, just like a wastewater treatment facility that meets Environmental Protection Agency standards.