Creating Jobs and Hope in Small-town Georgia

Newton County, GA

Five years ago, the town square of Covington, Georgia looked deserted with its empty buildings and no one on the streets after dark. Today, it’s a sought-after destination.
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How did Covington and Newton County, Georgia get back on the map? People got behind the vision for the community. Now it’s a magnet for urban dwellers from Atlanta, for example, just 30 miles away, to flock to for the lifestyle, history, green spaces and the quintessential small-town vibe. The houses are more affordable, the people are friendly – and the economic boom that’s happening is nothing short of incredible.

There are two of the top 10 restaurants in Atlanta located on Covington Square along with the quickest Your Pie pizza franchise in the country to reach $1 million and become a top-grossing store. There now is upscale men’s and women’s clothing and home décor shops, along with art and dance studios on the square. The biggest problem for the downtown these days is finding parking.

Bragging rights for the revitalization go to progressive community leaders and volunteers, led by Mayor Ronnie Johnston and the Office of Economic Development, supported by financial backers, including Georgia Tech, JPMorgan Chase and Texas oil and gas veteran Rahim Charania. Charania brought a film production campus, Three Ring Studios, to 160 acres just outside town, pumping millions of dollars into the community, offering jobs, student scholarships and even more promise for good things to come.

Entrepreneurs are doing unique things like tours of famous filming spots for the TV series The Vampire Diaries, which transformed the town into Mystic Falls for all of the show’s eight seasons. (Covington has trademarked the name Hollywood of the South).

“This little town isn’t playing around. This little town is taking it to a whole other level,” Mayor Johnston says. “It used to be nobody in Georgia knew anything about Covington. That’s not the case anymore… I’m trying to create an environment for industry to thrive here for decades. I want talented people to live here. It’s a great place.”

The area’s success circles back to two main goals: eradicating poverty and reaching zero unemployment. These get to the core of heartache for the entire nation, not only a small county in north Georgia. Newton County is determined to do both, and is well on its way.

In 2012, when Johnston took office, unemployment was at 13.6 percent. Now it’s 3.7 percent with the creation of 10,000 new jobs – nearly the equivalent of Covington’s 13,000 population. The county’s total population is about 106,000, and Mayor Johnston says they’re just getting started, predicting another 20,000 jobs coming in the next five years.

“Right now in Covington, Georgia you can be as successful as you want to be and the opportunities are enormous and they’re all right here. We’ve got a lot of cool stuff with Facebook here, a movie studio, we have our biosciences, General Mills, Bridgestone Golf.”

Part of the solution is recruiting diverse companies that create opportunities and bring jobs. The other part is having a steady stream of workers for those local firms, ready to fill all those new jobs. That has meant initiatives to improve the area’s school system and boost the number of high school graduates so young people can find higher-wage employment.

And while the county is traditionally known as a blue-collar manufacturing region, there are also high-tech notables locating here for the growing millennial workforce, such as the new $42 billion Facebook data center and expanding biopharmaceutical facilities like Shire. Shire’s additional $2.1 billion plant was just approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for production of life-changing drugs for hemophiliacs and people with immunodeficiency. The company plans to hire 900 individuals to augment its current roster of 850 employees.

The business wins for the county are fantastic, of course, but what really hits home are the stories of turning people’s lives around. Vice President of Economic Development, David Bernd, was instrumental in getting the school boards and parents to recognize the need for improvement, and in partnering with businesses to open doors.

“Our office spent time taking people down to the brand new Kia factory here that supplies all the Kias in North America and South America, and showing them that there are $100,000-a-year jobs in an environment where you can eat off the floor,” says Bernd, who moved to Covington after retiring from Fortune 500 manufacturer Kimberly-Clark. “Manufacturing today is not the manufacturing of Gary, Indiana in 1969.”

Bernd helped bring in a German apprenticeship model where students can earn $20,000 during high school and build those in-demand job skills and business networks in the meantime. Now, the county is aiming to have its workforce and its school system in the top two percent in the nation. “One student’s family told me that if he hadn’t gotten into the program, there’s a strong chance he wouldn’t have graduated high school. I bubble up inside when I hear these stories.”

City employees have volunteered to take on literacy challenges with primary school kids and Newton County is also one of the first in the state to feature a kindergarten to Grade 12 STEM-certified curriculum that promotes science, technology, engineering and mathematics. In fact, Bernd’s granddaughter Harper is making vinegar and baking soda volcano eruptions for science experiments in her kindergarten class. Then the youngsters are asked to sit down and write a hypothesis about the chain of events! (Bernd had planned to cover the costs of private school for his two grandchildren, but those plans have changed now that county schools are on the right track.)

“For North America to succeed, we have to go back and get into trades,” he says. “For every two welders that are retiring right now, there’s only one replacement, and if you came out of high school right now as a certified pressure valve welder, you are writing your own salary of above $80,000. We want people to go to college, but we need to keep that 60 to 70 percent [that don’t go on to college] to get their high school diploma and give them hope, dreams and jobs that will pay very well – and stop the cycle of poverty.”

The amazing thing is, the community has taken such huge strides in four to five years.

As Mayor Johnston puts it, “We all have our 20- or 30-year strategic plans, but this thing can happen fast. If you get a group of people of the right mind, and focus on a couple of goals, it’s amazing how quickly you can transform things – like our school systems and our municipalities. And we’re an open book for sharing our secrets.”

July 17, 2019, 7:06 PM EDT