This is a guest column from Covington Mayor Ronnie Johnston. Newton County and Covington’s leaders are invited to share their thoughts with The News and our community.
As Mayor of the City of Covington, I am nearing the end of my first term in office. It has been a very educational and humbling experience for me. Further, I am very honored that the citizens of Covington have elected me and allowed me to serve them as the mayor of such a wonderful and beautiful community.
During the last three years, we have taken on and accomplished many important programs and initiatives; there are too many to name them all. However, as mayor, I am elected by the entire slate of elected voters from all across the City of Covington. As such, I want you to know that I do not make a single decision or support any issue as mayor without first considering its impact upon all the citizens of our city and in many cases our county, too. Without trying to overwhelm you all with tons of numbers and statistics, I do want to point out that my three basic initiatives have always included improving — within our city and county, economic development opportunities, employment, and quality of life to the fullest extent possible.
In its purest form, economic development means identifying and attracting new businesses to locate within our community. This includes all types of business organization such as industries, agricultural, retail sales, dining, etc. It also includes the expansion of businesses that are already located here in our community. Why do we want economic development? Three of the basic reasons to me are to provide employment opportunities for citizens, to provide for the retail, entertainment, and dining needs and desires by citizens, and to provide for lower individual property taxes which are off-set by the higher business-related property and operational taxes as well the sales taxes earned from businesses operating within our community.
Economic development has been tough for a number of years due to the overall downturn in the economy. However, working in partnership with Newton County, other local and surrounding communities and utility providers and the local Chamber of Commerce, we are constantly searching and striving to attract and locate new industrial businesses to our community as well as to assist existing industries with the expansion of their business enterprises. Probably, the most recent and easily recalled industry to locate here is Baxter International that will be operating out of the Technology Park at Stanton Springs. They will need access to large amounts of natural gas to run their operation. The cities of Covington, Madison and Social Circle have partnered to build costly gas pipeline infrastructure to the plant site so that it can operate and provide some 1,500 plus jobs to our citizens, both now and in the future. In addition to efforts aimed at attracting or expanding industrial opportunities, we have also stepped up our partnership efforts with the Chamber of Commerce to identify and attract new retail and dining businesses to our community. Some new dining and retail activities have and are taking place, but we need more. To help, the Chamber of Commerce has added new staff and programs to improve our retail opportunities and overall success rate.
I also want to begin trying to set up discussions with local business owners and operators and property owners along each side of the U.S. 278 Highway to determine what initiatives can be researched and undertaken to make the business areas along the corridor more attractive to shoppers and economically viable to new and expanding business entrepreneurs.
Economic development in all areas is important, but in spite of our efforts, it is not easy to convince businesses to invest in new or expanding areas when the economy is still a little slow. Knowing this, our plan is and has been to create new ideas and opportunities, work harder, and to cast a wider net. To accomplish this, we are now, along with private interest groups, discussing how public-private partnerships may be able to help us better achieve our economic development goals. In the end, though development has been slow, you can still look around our town and see new businesses that have not always been here and even newer ones under construction or renovation. Though we would like to do more and we will, I am proud of our efforts and the success we have enjoyed.
New and expanding businesses create new job openings whereby people can seek and obtain employment, which goes hand-in-hand with economic development. This sounds simple and if you can attract the new or expanding businesses, sometimes it is. However, sometimes, the available and trained workforce is a major component in the decision making model of new and expanding businesses when it comes to where they locate or expand their business operations. Though businesses can and often do hire and train employees, a certain number of trained employees and/or employees who have at least some basic skills are needed for a business to open initially and to operate. These things being true, a combination of resources is needed to ensure that communities and in this case Covington/Newton County can either provide qualified employees or has the resources to adequately train employees after they have been hired. To help our community to satisfy required workforce needs, we have several colleges and universities located within Covington and Newton County that can and do offer quality educational programs. The local Chamber of Commerce has worked with the various local governments inside of Newton County and Georgia Piedmont Technical College to foster and support a state initiated “Work Ready Program” to educate and provide recognized employment credentials to potential job candidates. I have been informed recently that the “Work Ready Program,” as we know it, is no longer in existence, but the Chamber of Commerce is working to develop a replacement program. Additionally, I have supported the “New Leaf Work Force Development Program” and the efforts of the City of Covington and Newton County to serve as partners in the program and to provide program funding that will assist local persons in receiving training so as to become ready and able to apply for and obtain needed employment as job opportunities become available. This is vital to us locally given that “a large number of people need training or retraining in order for them to be qualified for many of the existing jobs or new jobs that will be coming to our community. In addition to actual basic job skills, a number of people will likely need educational assistance, help with resume writing, and training to develop interview skills in order for them to be eligible for and to obtain needed employment.” Last, but certainly not least, the State of Georgia has already broken ground on the construction of the 52,000 square foot Georgia BioScience Training Center at Stanton Springs. The new training center will be operated by Georgia QuickStart, a program that is administered by Athens Technical College. The center will provide training for the new employees hired to work at the Baxter International plant, but it will also be utilized to deliver training to the employees of other businesses that choose to locate to Georgia. It is intended that the training center and the services that it can and does provide will serve as a major incentive to attract new bio-science businesses and jobs to our state. As your mayor, I believe that the new training center now underway at Stanton Springs represents a great economic growth catalyst and outstanding accomplishment for our community and the entire state of Georgia.
Ultimately, therefore, jobs are important to the people looking for work, the businesses that need capable employees, and the community as a whole. That’s why we are and always must develop or participate in quality programs to make sure that our local citizens and prospective job candidates have adequate resources through which they can receive the vital job training needed for them to obtain jobs as they become available both now and in the future and to perform successfully after being hired.
Quality of life issues
These are places or activities that make living here more comfortable or enjoyable. To some extent it relates to what makes us, “our community,” or who we are. It involves things like safe neighborhoods, shady tree lined streets, sidewalks, well lighted streets and downtown areas, beautifully landscaped and well-maintained parks for outdoor activities and recreation which includes concerts in the park and the “Fourth of July Celebration.” All this is an area where our town is very blessed. We have and we continue to provide for well-staffed and equipped police and fire departments that are accredited and second to none in providing safety for citizens and visitors. We have made phenomenal improvements in street lighting, particularly in downtown.
With the cooperation of the county, we have approved a plan for improvement and long term enjoyment of the Town Square Park which includes some additional walk-ways and landscaping. As an elected body, the Covington Mayor and City Council has also recently approved slightly more than $200,000 in expenditures of hotel\motel tax dollars to acquire property and to build public restrooms near the Town Square to accommodate citizens and visitors alike as they shop, visit, and enjoy the activities offered within our beautiful downtown. In addition to several smaller green space areas around town, we also have and maintain Academy Springs Park. I encourage you to visit it on a Saturday and see how many individuals and families are enjoying what the park has to offer our citizens and visitors. The City of Covington also has future improvement plans on the drawing board for Legion Field Park, located on Mill Street. Legion Field, more commonly known as the “Fairgrounds,” is a former youth baseball field and large green space that is located right in the middle of Covington. With proposed renovations, it will offer a number of outside recreation activities for citizens and visitors and if all goes as planned, it will host an amphitheater so as to provide for small to medium sized outside entertainment events.
I realize that everyone does not cherish the idea of change and making improvements or additions to accommodate more people, but whether you have considered it or not, quality of life issues and improvements are also key factors in economic development. How is this so? Well, think about it for a minute. People spend money and work at the businesses that locate and operate here. Secondly, who wants to live or own a business within a community that is not safe, attractive and enjoyable to live and do business in? Answer: no one.
I believe that we have, to this point, provided reasonably good quality of life for our citizens, businesses, and visitors. Growth, however, is already here and more will continue in our direction. As we grow, we must maintain what we have and grow our quality of life. This may mean improvements or changes in areas where change has never occurred before or has never even been conceived. In my opinion, planning and making necessary changes and improvements associated with growth is the most important part of being successful with the changes. A lack of adequate planning can prove to be the downfall of any improvements to the quality of life and community as a whole.
The population of Newton County, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, has over doubled since 1990. The last population estimates placed Newton County at over 100,000 people. As Mayor of the City of Covington, I want to make sure that, to the fullest extent possible, the quality of life for ALL our citizens and visitors is safe and enjoyable.
In closing, I hope that you can sense through my brief comments my main objectives and concerns are for this community and you the citizens. Until the voters decide differently, I will continue down this path and fight each day to protect and improve this community, its great history, and our quality of life. I am extremely proud to be your mayor. Please stay tuned in for more about our great city and community.
Ronnie Johnston was elected mayor of Covington in 2011. He and his wife, Kelley, have four children, two of whom are getting married this year.