COVINGTON — Newton County took another step toward ownership of Cousins Community Center last week, approving a motion to enter into a sales agreement with the current owner of the facility for $1,198,000.
District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson, who has championed the purchase, made the motion to approve the agreement at last Tuesday’s BOC meeting, with District 2 Commissioner Demond Mason seconding. District 5 Commissioner Ronnie Cowan abstained, citing the fact that an associate of Cousins Community Center had done some legal work with Cowan’s law firm. District 1 Commissioner Stan Edwards, who had previously voted to pursue the purchase, cast the lone dissenting vote.
Edwards said he was acting based on the wishes of his constituents, from whom he said he had received “quite a few” messages and calls.
“It’s a resounding ‘No’ from those constituents,” said Edwards.
Edwards said he had also had more time to reflect on the purchase and felt it best to reconsider, particularly due to the pending purchase of a new 911 radio system and the unknown costs of dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak
“I want to apologize to this board because I will be voting no,” Edwards said during discussion of the purchase agreement.
Edwards’ decision drew a rebuke from Henderson, although he did not mention Edwards by name.
“I’m a man of my word … If I said I was going to vote for something over in District 1, J.C. Henderson would vote for it,” he said. “Raise your hand up; I won’t change on you.”
Henderson has long advocated that the county purchase Cousins Center, which served as the first black high school in the county and was later used as a middle school. Henderson would like to establish a black history museum there.
The county approved the purchase of the former school on Geiger Street on Feb. 4 from the non-profit Cousins Community Center Inc., although the county has not yet said how it will pay the purchase price. The county has indicated an interest in issuing bonds to purchase and renovate the facility.
At last Tuesday’s meeting, District 3 Commissioner Nancy Schulz said she was satisfied that the purchase was a sound financial decision since the property had appraised for more than the purchase price.
“We know that there are ballfields there, we know there is a gym there that is desperately needed to serve the community,” said Schulz. “I have a little hesitancy because of the uncertain times we have entered into, but from a financial decision, I don’t think we can ignore the fact that there is an appraisal higher than the purchase price.”
The county currently rents the Cousins Center at a rate of $11,425 per month. The rented space includes the old school buildings and the adjacent gymnasium, which is used by the Newton County Recreation Department. 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. Covington-Newton County E-911 was housed in the building until last year when the department moved due to problems with the building.
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.
County officials have taken a preliminary look at the work that would be needed to renovate the facility. Ascension Program Management in Monroe estimated the cost of renovations would be $8.75 million, although some of the work could be done in stages.
In response to a question by Schulz last week, County Manager Lloyd Kerr said any renovations on the property would be a separate decision by the board and “would be contingent on our ability to carry the debt load associated with any bonding that would be required for us to do any renovation on the school.”