The Newton County Board of Commissioners voted Tuesday to use $5 million in SPLOST funds to renovate Porter Memorial Auditorium as a civic center to be administered by the Newton County Arts Association.
The renovation, which will include an expanded lobby and concessions area, dressing rooms, and all new sound and lighting system, is expected to be completed by June 2016.
“What I see is an economic development tool,” said Jeff Wagner, an Arts Association board member, speaking to the board. “As we look at businesses locating here…I think every time I talk to somebody that is in the business world, the topic always arises: What the community has to offer.”
“This will be a fantastic tool for the school system to use,” he said. “It is also a fantastic tool for somebody locating here to say ‘what is my son or daughter going to get involved in’.”
The Historic Court House was packed with children and their parents who came out to support the Arts Association, which runs many programs from a performing arts summer camp to an office internship program.
Dr. Nicole Ross, a physician at Newton County Medical Center, spoke of how pleased her family was to discover the Arts Association after moving from downtown Atlanta to Covington six years ago.
“The work that is done at the Newton County Arts Association really is fabulous,” she added. “Not only do our children learn a lot, they get encouraged, they get love, they get hugs, and I can’t pay for that.”
“I am really pleased with the Arts Association and would hope that anything we can do as a community to make this an even better experience then we would do so,” Ross concluded.
Juliana Lassiter, an Arts Center alumna who is studying music at Temple University, testified to the role the Arts Association has played in her own life, urging the board to vote “yes”.
“It will make a world of difference,” she said.
The motion to approve the plan was made by Commissioner Levie Maddox, who placed the civic center in the context of a growing Newton County.
“A few years from now, Brown Bridge Road will be a four-lane East-West Gateway; the Bypass Road will become a four-lane educational corridor, as we already have 7 schools on the road; a trail system will connect Porterdale, Turner Lake Park and the Career Academy; the business community will be able to utilize this facility for conferences,” he said. “The Arts Association touches over 35,000 lives annually and serves eight counties and over 50 schools…[it] has maintained incredibly strong support from our large industrial and small businesses. “
The space, which is located at the former Newton High campus on Ram Drive and owned by the Board of Education, would be leased to the county.
The vote was 5-0 with Commissioner John Douglas confessing that he has been intending to vote against the project, but changed his mind because the civic center would “certainly give us a leg up” on neighboring counties.
The civic center is the last remaining project from the 2005 SPLOST approved by voters. Although it was originally conceived as a public-private partnership, the recession caused many private funders to pull out.
Although no one spoke out publicly against the project at Tuesday’s meeting, some critics have said the money should be used to pay off the county’s debts.
Separately, the board discussed putting the county’s financial audit out to bid after several years in a row of late filings. The board is still awaiting the final, approved budget for FY2014, which was due in December from Treadwell & Tamplin.
Finance Director Michelle Kelly blamed limited staffing and a software transition for the tardiness of past years, and asked the board to approve another contract with the same firm so that the county can get started on next year’s budget.
Commissioner Nancy Schulz made the motion to approve the audit contract not to exceed $108,000 but emphasized that the contract needs to be bid out in order to comply with the current purchasing policy.
The vote passed 4-1 with Commissioner Lanier Sims opposing.