This is a story of government refocusing its priorities when its citizens redefine theirs.
Newborn, a picturesque and historical town of more than 800 in eastern Newton County, may be removed from the bustle of urban life, but its residents share connections to the same changing needs and attitudes as Atlanta and beyond.
Obesity rates are up nationwide; Newton County has not escaped this trend. Residents and homebuyers are seeking walking trails and sidewalks-- means of alternative transportation. They want playgrounds, parks, and pools--tools for lifelong fitness. Passers-by say the Newborn Park on Johnson Street draws families any day the sun is out. And so the idea of recreation across the country is evolving. Newborn residents, their mayor and council recognize recreation as something much broader than ball fields.
“One of the highest priorities of government is to promote safe, healthy activities and quality of life. Part of the infrastructure is to keep the county healthy,” says Newborn’s Mayor Gregg Ellwanger. “It’s a culture of wellness that we have to create, and we don’t have that yet.”
Walking the walk
Perhaps the idea of healthy infrastructure started 5+ years ago with former Mayor Roger Sheridan’s support of bringing Rails-to-Trails to Newborn. Sheridan signed a support proclamation in 2010 which is still displayed on the town's website. “The town continues to work to support this asset for our community and county,” it reads. Sheridan was willing to spearhead the efforts to bring trails into Newton County years ago, but the process became bogged down, explains Ellwanger.
Newton Trails now has a renewed opportunity to see this process through by way of railbanking part of the Norfolk Southern Railroad line.
Earlier on this day the mayors of Newton and nearby Social Circle came to Newborn’s Town Hall to discuss these quality of life issues and means of building stronger communities. Ellwanger describes this group of community leaders as having a shared vision. “The mayors are ready to pick up the baton. If Newton Trails gets a railbanked corridor, the mayors will support it.”
“I have never heard of a trail being a pathway to crime, that’s the highways,” he says. “A trail is a pathway to health, yeah, but I’ve never met somebody on a bicycle that I was afraid of.”
In fact, anyone in the real estate market today will see “walkability scores” attached to home listings based on pedestrian/bike-accessible paths and access to key destinations like town centers, groceries, doctors, parks and restaurants. More walkable neighborhoods are more desirable.
“Four in five millennials say they want to live in a place where they have a variety of transportation options to get to jobs, school or daily needs; and three in four say they’ll likely choose to live where they don’t need a car to get around,” states Josh Herst on the Walkscore.com website.
Recreation, it’s not just for kids
Ellwanger sees this appeal for healthy infrastructure; he also sees the healthcare crisis that makes it necessary. As a physical therapist with some 30 years of experience, he has seen how sedentary lifestyles have harmed patients and how poor health has taxed our economy. “Our country spends more money on healthcare than any country in the world, but it’s spent the wrong way,” he says, expressing a need for prevention and healthier lifestyles.
In 2008, Georgians spent $2.4 billion on the direct medical costs of obesity and lost productivity from disease, disability and death. Likewise, obesity-related hospitalizations of children (2-19) increased 339% over 11 years (1999-2010), according to Newton Partnership and Governor Deal’s Georgia Student Health And Physical Education ( GA SHAPE) Initiative. Georgia is ranked 17th in childhood obesity and Newton County’s numbers are slightly worse than the state average. A multi-generational problem: Only 69% of Newton County’s adult population were a healthy weight in 2009, according to Newton Partnership and the Ga. Department of Public Health’s Office of Health Indicators for Planning.
So Ellwanger is looking beyond the bleachers for multi-generational solutions. Paved trails, aquatic centers, playgrounds, sidewalks, offer an infrastructure that will support citizens of all abilities and age groups. Given current rates of childhood obesity, strokes and heart attacks, Ellwanger believes passive recreation and alternative transportation are needed more than ever and are the best use of tax dollars as it will re-focus our attention on prevention. “When is the last time you saw a 60 year old playing football?...Or 35 year old?... Survivors with organ transplants-- they get it,” explains Ellwanger. “God gave us one body.”
Following Sheridan’s lead
In recent years, almost one-third of Newborn’s SPLOST monies went to recreation, specifically the Newborn Park on Johnson Street. This appears to be welcomed by the families that play on the swings, host picnics and birthdays in the pavilion, and walk the 1200’-walking path that frame it while younger ones see-saw and hop-scotch. “And in a little town, I think that’s really money well spent,” says Ellwanger. This too was an initiative launched by Sheridan that the present mayor and council have seen fit to pursue. “It’s a nice precedence to continue.”
The somewhat larger transportation budget went to a combination of sidewalks and roads. Sidewalks, the mayor explains, are a dual benefit as transportation and recreation. Slated for future improvements are a walking bridge and sidewalks east and west of downtown.
Healthy citizens, healthy government
City and county government and community, says Ellwanger, can work together for a common vision for the good of all citizens. He believes improved health and increased fitness will draw people to the county. “Money will come if you’ve got a good vision. …It takes folks to step up to the plate. We are blessed to have Newton Trails as strong as it is, because not every county has that.”