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Officials discuss Walkers Bend center
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Dozens of city and county officials met Wednesday to discuss a potential mixed-used residential apartment, business incubator building in the Walker's Bend neighborhood in Covington, and officials seemed generally in favor.

The four-story, 39,460-square-foot building would cost $3.6 million, but can be scaled back, said Covington Planning Director Randy Vinson. The city and county are trying to combine state and federal grants and some 2011 SPLOST money to complete the project.

The city has made it a priority to revitalize the neighborhood off Ga. Highway 81, south of the intersection with Turner Lake Road.

The building would be owned by either Newton County to satisfy the requirement of the Neighborhood Stabilization Program money the county is contributing to the project, or jointly by the county and the Covington Housing Authority.
The housing authority will manage the top three floors, which will serve as apartments for housing authority residents. Authority attorney Jimmy Alexander said the housing authority continually has a long waiting list of people seeking subsidized housing.

The rent rate for theWalker's Bend apartments has not been set, Vinson said.

Because of the presence of apartments, the building would be eligible to receive Neighborhood Stabilization Program money. The county has had trouble spending the remainder of its NSP 1 money, which it received in 2009, because it's having trouble purchasing residential property that meets the program's low-income requirement.

The county is also eligible to receive $1.08 million in NSP 3 money, but has no use for it. Scott Sirotkin, who has worked with the county's Neighborhood Stabilization Program, said the county has been told that the city of Covington should be able to apply for the money in the county's stead. The deadline to apply for the NSP 3 funding is April 15.

The city is also applying for an $800,000 state grant to fund the business spaces on the first floor of the building. The first floor would contain spaces for start-up businesses to operate, a restaurant and a commercial kitchen.

The commercial kitchen would be used to help entrepreneurs trying to start baking or catering businesses or farmers who would want to preserve their produce so they could sell it year round.

The project could also receive $545,000 from the 2011 SPLOST, because the District 4 Improvements allocation called for a workforce development center. The first floor would also contain a community room that would be used for job training and life skills counseling, and be a partnership between the Newton County Minister's Union and DeKalb Technical College.

All of those funding sources would total $2.86 million. The remaining $735,000 would need to come from a loan, most likely taken by the Covington Housing Authority. If the authority did not feel comfortable taking out a loan, the building could be scaled back to reduce its cost.

The county and housing authority would be in charge of maintenance, but the hope is the rent from the apartments would provide enough money to pay for maintenance. The business spaces would not be expected to make money, because they would be helping business startups. Vinson said he would be happy if those spaces could simply cover their own maintenance through rent.

All parties agreed they need to see an estimate of the revenues and expenses before they could move forward.

Vinson said the project can be adjusted to meet costs, at least within a certain range.

If funding came through, the project would be completed by early 2013. Covington chose to revitalize Walker's Bend, because city officials saw it as a neighborhood on the brink of becoming a slum. The mixed-use building would be located at the neighborhood's entrance and would be a big step in the revitalization efforts.

The city and a private developer are planning to build dozens of high-quality single-family homes in the neighborhood over the next few years.