Sunday, The News asked: "What will it take to make Newton County healthier?" The question was prompted by a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation report ranking Newton 143rd of 159 Georgia counties in community health factors. The question is being asked anew, but answers have been documented as long as they have been ignored by a majority of our local elected leaders. Health begins and ends with personal responsibility, but healthy living thrives in a healthy environment. Despite more than a decade of public demand for green space and more recreation options, Newton County ranked 110th for physical environment in the report. Changing that requires leadership.
Measuring recreational facilities per 100,000 residents, Newton had six against a state average of nine and a national benchmark of 17. While subpar, that figure hides a deeper problem, which is the lack of passive recreation facilities for adults and families. Turner Lake, City Pond, and Denny Dobbs parks are great amenities, but the majority of our recreation space is allocated to youth sports. A healthy population requires ready access for all to open spaces for walking, running, biking, and skating. We need places to walk the dog or push the baby stroller and safe avenues to travel for routine tasks without using a car.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the National Center for Walking and Biking and the American Journal of Preventive Medicine have published studies linking passive recreation venues to better physical activity and public health. You can find these reports and more at www.newtontrails.org/benefits.html.
This is not new news.
In 2005, the Newton County Recreation Commission published a six-year plan with extensive public participation.
"Input received as part of the planning process indicates that residents of Newton County desire a wider range of recreation opportunities," the plan said.
It also included a goal that: "Recreation opportunities available to Newton County residents should include a broad range of both active and passive facilities."
The plan listed a county-wide trail system as a priority, along with funding estimates for completion.
The 2008 Comprehensive Transportation Plan for Newton County and its five municipalities included this vision statement: "The (transportation) system will provide multi modal alternatives such as public transportation, multi-use trails, sidewalks, and bicycle lanes in addition to roadway improvements to improve access to employment and other destinations."
The overall county Comprehensive Plan adopted by commissioners that same year has more than two dozen references calling for multi-use trails throughout the county. The plan's short-term work program lists an action to "adopt a future parks and conservation plan that incorporates the County Trails Master Plan and the Recreation Master Plan."
We do not suffer from a shortage of ideas to make Newton County healthier. We lag because we lack leadership committed to making public health a priority in deeds and not just words. We languish from an inconsistent response to the priorities of the people and a failure to follow through on promises made.
Some say "now is not the time," blaming the economy for goals unmet and plans not attempted.
But even in boom times, these needs were not addressed. From the crossroads where we sit today, investing in a healthy environment is a last-gasp necessity to turn the tide of recession and maintain a vibrant community to draw the lifeblood of quality industry and commercial businesses. We cannot print money. But, with funds in hand to buy a valuable railroad corridor, our leaders won't even discuss it. While neighboring counties secure grants, partnerships, and public support to build healthy places, Newton County leaders were afraid to include green space in the 2011 SPLOST. Conyers and Rockdale County will soon finish a trail from Olde Town to the Rockdale Career Academy with SPLOST funds approved in 2010.
Earlier this year, Athens-Clarke County voters approved a SPLOST referendum with more than $24 million for greenways, trails, pedestrian improvements, and green space acquisition. That is how communities stay healthy.
Newton County residents spoke loud and clear in the recreation, transportation, and comprehensive plans. Still, we remain rich with words but missing in action.
What will it take to make Newton County healthier? United leadership dedicated to that end, willing to make tough choices, with courage to take a stand. Where do we start? By doing what we already said we would do.
Maurice Carter is chairman of the Newton County Trail-Path Foundation.