COVINGTON — Newton County’s former black high school and gymnasium will be purchased by the county for a multi-use facility that could house the Board of Elections, Keep Newton Beautiful, Georgia Driver Services, Emergency Management, Recreation Department programs and a new black history museum.
Commissioners approved the purchase from the non-profit Cousins Community Center Inc. Tuesday night. The asking price is $1,198,000. Charles Berry is listed as the chief financial officer and secretary of the organization, with Tom Solley as the chief executive officer. Attorney Frank B. Turner Jr. is the registered agent.
How the county will pay for the building, which served as the black high school from 1950 to 1970 and later became Cousins Middle School until a new school was built, remains to be determined. County Manager Lloyd Kerr is expected to bring funding options back to the board at the next meeting on Feb. 18.
The county currently leases the 60,000-square-foot building on Geiger Street from Cousins Community Center at a rate of $11,425 per month. The school building houses the state Department of Driver Services and Newton County Emergency Management, and the city of Covington uses some space for records storage. The adjacent gymnasium is used for county recreation programs. Covington-Newton County E-911 operated from the building until last year when it was moved due to problems with the building.
Extensive renovations will be needed for the school building and the gymnasium, commissioners were told. Jeff Prine, project manager for two other projects in the county, estimated the cost of renovations would be $8.75 million.
Commissioners were presented with a preliminary master plan for the former school building that was built in four sections, alond with a separate gymnasium. Among the needed renovations are new roofing in some areas, drainage improvements, parking area and roadway improvements, installation of fire alarm/sprinkler systems throughout the existing buildings, improvements to HVAC and electrical systems and more.
Despite the needed renovations, Prine said the school building is structurally sound and that some of the work could be done in phases. Prine estimated the cost to purchase and renovate the building at $175 per square foot, compared to new construction, which he said would cost closer to $20 million.
District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson has long advocated purchasing the school and establishing a black history museum there. Henderson said Cousins School has as much historical significance to the black community as the Historic Courthouse does in the county. The school was named for Robert L. Cousins, who was the director of the Division of Negro Education for the state during the 1950s and was instrumental in advancing education for blacks.
“We should be figuring out a way to do this rather than figuring out a way not to do it,” said Henderson.
Henderson made a motion to purchase the Cousins facility; District 2 Commissioner Demond Mason seconded the motion, which passed 5-0. District 5 Commissioner Ronnie Cowan initially voted against the measure, saying he had "hit his debt limit tonight,” referring to a decision earlier in the meeting to issue bonds for construction of a new fire station. Cowan changed his vote to support the motion after it was clarified that the motion did not include bonding the purchase.
Commissioners had discussed purchasing the Cousins campus in July 2015 when the building was offered for sale at $1.6 million, but ultimately opted to continue to lease it.
Editor's note: This article was updated on Feb. 13, 2020, to reflect that District 5 Commissioner Ronnie Cowan voted in favor of the purchase after initially opposing it. He changed his vote after clarification that the motion did not include a provision to bond the project.