After being transferred 17 times during his career at Kimberly Clark, Dave Bernd chose to settle in Covington, Georgia. “After being repatriated from Canada, my wife and I could be relocated anywhere in the United States that we wanted,” he recalls. “And we just fell in love with Covington and Newton County. It is Mayberry; it is what America is to me after working in many countries all over the world.”
Beyond the quaint, hometown feel, the community boasts distinct business advantages. “As an engineer that works in the economic development world, it has all the makings of a great place to locate,” remarks Ralph Forbes, Vice President of Thomas & Hutton. “[It has a] well traveled interstate, large tract inventory to create sites for prospects, and a growing county with a heavy labor market 45 minutes away.”
“Simply put, Covington has a small town feel with the luxury of countless commerce options,” Covington Mayor Ronnie Johnston summarizes. “It is the best of both worlds. If you have ever been to the Covington Town Square, you instantly feel like you are in a classic ‘Small Town USA’ from a post card and the citizens of Covington bolster that feeling.”
After moving to the idyllic community, Mr. Bernd was not content to spend his retirement idly – he recognized the unmet potential within Newton County and was determined to help the area make the most of its resources. “In my last several years with Kimberly Clark during the recession, we went through laying people off and I didn’t want to go to my grave with laying people off,” he explains. “I wanted to go creating jobs – and one of the things that I found was that the area is absolutely ripe for industry development.”
Located within the eastern metro area of Atlanta, the community is so well positioned that Mr. Bernd figured it would be like “taking candy from a baby” to achieve substantial regional growth. He marched into the Chamber of Commerce, ready to volunteer and help drive that development. “And I walked out five hours later with a job.” Now, as Vice President of Economic Development for Covington / Newton County, Mr. Bernd is well positioned to achieve his vision for the community.
“Coming from a fortune 500 company, I have three critical objectives: we will lead the nation in economic development by 2020; we will have a top 25 workforce by 2020; and we will dominate in retail in the Big 3A (Atlanta, Augusta, and Athens). Everything that my team does going forward has to go to those three objectives.”
One of Mr. Bernd’s first actions was to identify a unique 2,600-acre Mega Site. Located along the CSX railroad within a 45 minute drive of 2.5 million people, Mr. Bernd was sure he had found a development goldmine – so sure, in fact, that he hiked the length of the land, covering 21 miles in two days – in order to record the necessary details using a GPS receiver and camera. The hard earned data proved his instincts correct, and the Georgia Historic Heartland Mega Site is now turning the heads of major developers. “The Mega Site puts Newton County on the radar screen, meaning that investors and industries worldwide will become aware of Newton County, Georgia,” says Aubrey Brown, the Director of Regional Development for CSX Transportation. “The Mega Site has taken flight among county and state movers and shakers and the County is making major preparations to attract a large manufacturing industry to the site.”
Bringing in manufacturing jobs is vital to maintaining a healthy local economy, Mr. Bernd adds, because even though the community already enjoys the presence of top companies such as engineering / surveying firm Thomas & Hutton, based in Savannah, and healthcare giant Baxter, these companies don’t provide many blue collar positions. “Establishing the Mega Site [gives us] blue collar jobs to help out the local communities. It is really putting a nice, balanced portfolio together, not only for international multinational development but also for local development of local industries.”
Businesses moving to the Mega Site, or anywhere within the area, can count on plenty of support from local government. “We recognize the importance of new business and have incentives in place to try and lure new business to Covington,” Mr. Johnston reports. “This has proven successful with the lengthy list of companies that have and are planning on operating in Covington.” In addition, the city operates its own electric, gas, water and sewer utility systems. “That allows us to keep costs reasonable and to participate directly in negotiations with new prospects that desire to locate their operations in Covington. We continually review and work to streamline planning, zoning and permitting processes to create a ‘one stop shop’ environment for prospective businesses.”
Businesses moving into the new Mega Site will find the process particularly hassle free. “The Covington Mega Site has attractive characteristics for large industrial companies and is free of ‘red flags’ or barriers to a quick development timeline,” Mr. Brown points out. Furthermore, CSX is working closely with Covington-Newton to get the Mega Site certified as a select site, which would officially designate the tract of land for industrial development and expansion. “These properties [select sites] are poised to accommodate rail-served industrial customers and have been certified by The Austin Company,” Mr. Brown explains. “Select sites present a unique opportunity to purchase a property with lower upfront development risk and faster speed to market.”
A string of multinational companies have already been attracted to Newton County over the years. Michelin North America has a manufacturing facility in Covington and Bridgestone Golf’s world headquarters is located there. Baxter is expanding its presence with the construction of a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility just outside of Covington. “Baxter international just invested over a billion dollars in their plasma manufacturing site which will be employing well over 2,000 by the end of this year,” Mr. Bernd reports. “We already have a very rich multinational base in the community which represents just short of 10,000 jobs and helps us attract additional multinationals.” Covington’s charm has also attracted the entertainment industry. “We have had over 64 films filmed here in the past decade. We have The Vampire Diaries currently being filmed here. That has brought well over 1,000 jobs and generated a great amount of tax [revenue].
To be sure, multinationals are attracted to Newton County’s quality of life as much as its business advantages. “Covington and her neighboring communities share several common benefits,” shares Mr. Brown. “The first great reason to live in the Greater Metro Atlanta area is the wonderful climate. Spring and summer are filled with a bouquet of blossoms that flood the visual and olfactory senses. Parks and beautiful homes treat citizens and visitors alike with colors as if from the palette of a great landscape painter. The fall blazes with glorious colors so awesome that it almost takes your breath away. The winters are mild, and every now and then, the students get a day off for a light snow. It rarely gets below freezing. How could anyone not like the weather and climate in Covington, Georgia?”
In addition, the cost of living is low and home ownership is well within reach. “The second reason to live in Covington is that it is a great place to buy a home. Covington real estate is affordable. Newcomers can choose between well-established homes for sale or new homes in outstanding new home communities. Or you can choose a lot and build a custom home – simply select a homebuilder from the many in Greater Metro Atlanta.” Education is another plus. “Some of the best schools in Greater Metro Atlanta are found in Covington,” Mr. Brown reports. And, within 45 minutes of Covington, “we have over 15 world renowned universities,” Mr. Bernd adds.
The community’s success has been a group effort and Mr. Bernd stresses the importance of “the partnerships that we are establishing not only locally within the county, but also the regional approach we are taking with the state, partnerships that have been established with CSX, Thomas & Hutton and all our partners across the state.” Shane Short, Executive Director of the Development Authority of Walton County, agrees. “Regional partnerships are crucial to recruiting large industries to our region.” Walton County has partnered with Newton County repeatedly, most notably on the Historic Heartland Mega Site. “By partnering, both counties are able to bring their strengths to the table to make sure that a company has what it needs to be successful. This is especially true in the area of utility service delivery. Whenever a company chooses to locate in our region, everybody wins.”
Maintaining a clear vision has also been critical to success. “When you have that clear vision, you see everyone getting on board,” Mr. Bernd points out. If all goes as planned, this vision will eventually see the creation of 30,000 high-end blue-collar jobs, but it will also allow key aspects of the community to remain as they are. “Covington is growing, but we are actively taking measures to ensure the preservation of that small town feeling because it is so important to our citizens and our culture,” Mr. Johnston states. With its development boom balanced with its friendly, hometown feel, Newton County is well placed to grow successfully.