With zero progress on the Civic Center a decade in — despite collecting $5M in SPLOST revenues — the Newton County Board of Commissioners voted Tuesday with lightning speed and little deliberation to fast path upgrades to Olive Swann Porter Hall on the old Newton County High School campus.
In haste, there was little public discussion before a vote. But, I still want to comment.
I support the arts and have many friends delighted by this action. I agree a better performing arts facility is good for our community. I’m fine with that. My objection is to calling this a “Civic Center.”
“Civic” means “of or relating to a city or town,” and “center” is the middle point. Olive Swann Porter Hall sits outside any city; it’s certainly not a center.
The Civic Center planned for downtown Covington envisioned a facility with performing arts space, but also meeting rooms and banquet space. Even an adjoining hotel was considered. This was to be a central feature of our community, an amenity for local businesses, and a draw for visitors. It would anchor a vibrant, walkable downtown, increasing economic activity in the central business district.
That this new plan falls so short is no fault of those who championed this use over letting SPLOST funds default to debt payments. But, we should never have gotten to this point.
This is yet another glaring example of a disturbing lack of leadership by our Chairman and commissioners. The Covington Mayor and Council are also to be faulted for letting us drift to a use-it-or-lose-it crisis. The 2008 economic downturn was an unavoidable impact, but genuine leaders maintain the vision and adjust course while keeping the end in sight.
Instead, we’ve wandered aimlessly for a decade, giving it no thought until reacting in a knee-jerk way to a last-ditch effort to save some semblance of the original project. The self-congratulating comments from commissioners Tuesday underscore how little they understand of all they’ve squandered.
Nothing in the County’s land use plan suggests this location for the kind of development accompanying a true civic center. In the 2008 Comprehensive Plan, the intersection of Brown Bridge Road and Crowell Road is tagged a “Community Crossroads” -- an area focused around a “small neighborhood-scale commercial center.” That same plan recognizes our cities/villages as centers to contain “most of the elements of a small town, which are civic, commercial, and residential uses all linked by a pedestrian-friendly transportation network.”
Walkable, mixed-use development was nice-to-have in the first part of this century, but it’s a meets-minimum requirement today. In the National Association of REALTORS 2013 Community Preference Survey, 60% of respondents favored neighborhoods with a mix of houses, stores, and other businesses within walking distance, rather than those requiring driving. In the association’s 2015 survey, millennials (age 18-34) showed an even more dramatic preference for walking over driving, being 12 percentage points more likely to walk than drive.
Investing in the arts is wise. But, doing so in a place accessible only by car, far removed from other aspects of civic life, is a poor long-term investment. By not directing resources to our true civic centers, our leaders have squandered a chance to materially enhance economic development. They’ve taken our community further down the road to irrelevance, congratulating themselves for the achievement.