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Trying to catch up to the growth
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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. For the second edition, Commissioner Earnest Simmons provided a tour of the county’s second smallest and fastest growing district.

People in District 2 generally want two things: better roads and more entertainment. Both are coming, but they’ve been moving slowly, just like the residents stuck at the intersection of Brown Bridge and Salem roads.

For the past two decades Newton County’s rapid growth has been focused in District 2. House upon house went up and family upon family moved in. The road system didn’t keep up and the result is that a 40-mile drive to Atlanta takes about two hours. And that’s where these residents are going: Atlanta.

The majority of them are younger working professionals who are tied to Atlanta, not to downtown Covington. Commissioner Earnest Simmons is one of them, although he finds himself in Covington on a regular basis as well.

On my tour with Simmons he focused on two things: houses, there’s a lot of them, and notoriously busy intersections, there’s a lot of them too.

We worked our way west along the main corridor of Salem Road, passing from the intersection at Smith Store Road to the one at Brown Bridge Road to the one at Spring Road.

All of the intersections need help, but Simmons said Salem and Brown Bridge is one the biggest priorities.

"The biggest issue in this district is traffic. The intersection at Salem and Brown Bridge roads is one of the most heavily congested areas in the state, let alone the county," Simmons said.

Widening Salem Road has been talked about for a long time, but completing road work on the major artery is going to be expensive. In the county’s latest transportation plan, the widening of Salem Road to six lanes, from Brown Bridge Road to Old Salem Road, was projected to cost $56.4 million. With the Georgia Department of Transportation in a financial bind, that project isn’t expected to be completed anytime soon.

However, the county did recently receive a little more than $1 million in stimulus money to install a traffic signal at the intersection of Spring and Salem roads. In addition, Salem Road will be widened 6 feet to provide a north bound left turn lane and Spring Road will be relocated 80 feet north and reconstructed to provide one lane west bound and left and right-turn lanes east bound. The project is expected to be completed in late 2010.

Simmons said the county has also been working for the last 15 years to try to redesign the four-way stop intersection of Brown Bridge Road and Ga. highways 20 and 212. He said that intersection is the most congested and affects around 80 percent of residents in his district. Because of a lack of state funding, this project has also been pushed back to around 2013.

Simmons said that between around 50 percent of his constituents commute to Atlanta daily.

"The job base is Newton County is just not that big. There is a great migration west between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. every morning," said Simmons, who himself works for The Goodyear Tire and Rubber Corp. near Atlanta. "I would love to work in the county if I could find comparable pay."

The residents in District 2 aren’t just making that western trek during the week, they’re often heading to Conyers or Atlanta on nights and weekends as well. They simply don’t have places to shop, eat out or entertain themselves in Newton County.

"On Monday and Tuesday I go drive around the district and talk to people. But the rest of the week there isn’t much to do. There are no bowling alleys, no shops and not many restaurants. There’s nothing to break up monotony of the week," Simmons said.

Simmons said that there are a lot of middle-income residents in his district who have some disposable income, and they want quality restaurants and shops. He said the district does have some mom-and-pop restaurants, but they close early and residents want more variety.

"I would love to see places like Fuddruckers or Spaghetti Warehouse come to the county. Or a Dave and Busters, a place with food and games," he said.

Many county officials say that business aren’t coming to Newton County because, in general, the county’s residents don’t have enough disposable income. However, Simmons said close to 30,000 people live within three miles of the intersection of Salem and Brown Bridge roads, and he believes that number of people can support higher-end shops, including retail stores like Kohls or Belks.

District 2 residents are also looking for more entertainment options. Although the government isn’t going to build a movie theater or bowling alley, Simmons has helped lead the charge to get a library and public park in the western end. The Porter Memorial Library and Denny Dobbs Park have had groundbreaking ceremonies this year. The park is expected to open in spring 2010 and the library in early 2011.

"The park is important because people have been waiting for it for 10 years. It will be a great shot in the arm for my district," Simmons said. "The Denny Dobbs Park and the library will become the focal points of activity in the district."

In addition, the planned Wal-Mart Supercenter at the intersection of Salem and Brown Bridge roads will become a focal shopping point when it is completed. The start of construction has been pushed back previously, but Simmons said the company is planning to open the store in March 2011. Simmons hopes some more business along that Salem Road corridor will help keep more sales tax revenue in Newton County.

He said some of his other future goals are to see the second and third phases of Denny Dobbs completed, including a football field, tennis courts and longer walking trail, and to bring in an aquatic center, a YMCA or a Boys and Girls Club. He also wants to work more closely with Rockdale County to partner on joint projects in the future. He said Rockdale has expressed interest in tying in to the Covington Municipal Airport.

Although crime is higher in the western end, Simmons said he feels that the perception overshadows reality. He said most District 2 residents are working class, college educated people, and there is only a small cadre of people who want to cause trouble. However, he would like consideration for placing a satellite office in his district.

Despite some of the problems, Simmons said his district has many attractive features.

"There is still not as much density as there is elsewhere in the Atlanta area. There isn’t as much noise and there are more trees, the county is more scenic," he said. "Also there’s always been more hospitality here."

He said many people were, and continue to be, attracted to District 2 because of the wide variety of housing. He showed me everything from simple starter homes to those costing more than $300,000. For many people, District 2 is still turning out to be the perfect home.