Mansfield has just what you look for in a small town—rich history, charming architecture, thriving churches, good school, bustling park, and beloved family-owned businesses invested in the community. And yet, the citizens want more— a pavilion for holiday festivals and summer concerts overlooking a lawn for picnics, better parking… and maybe a coffee house!
The yarn that will tie it all together is the next stretch of the Newton Trail System, formerly a Norfolk Southern rail line. This scenic, rural, multi-use trail will extend east from Covington to Mansfield and Newborn while weaving through cooling woodlands and enticing raspberry patches.
As the new path crosses Pine Street at the center of town, it will emerge alongside an angled wood pavilion and great lawn, a place to take a break and explore downtown. Beyond Ga. Hwy. 11 on the opposite side of the Square, the trail will carry walkers and cyclists to a spur trail leading north to the new Nature Trail and eventually to Mansfield Elementary, while the trail proper will connect to Beaver Park on Hwy 213.
First stop, Mansfield Town Center: The decked pavilion will be the focal point for concerts, plays and holiday events for years to come, says Mansfield Mayor Jefferson Riley. “We don’t have anything like this,” he adds, highlighting the trail’s potential as a vehicle for community-building and commercial growth.
Radiating out from the lawn in the Square, the present-day parking lots will shift into place with a face-lift; angled, two-way parking for cars and golf carts will replace the somewhat random lots there now. The rail trail will flank to the south side of the lawn, mirroring a narrower sidewalk on the north side. Colorful perennials and trees in containers will soften the edges. “We will be taking some trees out in the downtown area, but for every tree we take down we will replace it with two,” says Riley.
The center of town presently boasts a handful of businesses anchored by Blackwell’s Grocery on the south, the Post Office to the north, Beaver Manufacturing to the west and Where’s the Smoke BBQ on the east.
Beaver Manufacturing, a leader in its industry founded by the late Edward Needham, will be the backdrop to the pavilion, just as it has been an integral and philanthropic part of Mansfield since the early ‘70s.
Everyone in town goes to Blackwell’s, says resident Tonya Bechtler. It carries all the essentials and even specialties like Patrick’s candies during the holidays. “It’s such a cute town with a lot of history. They could do a lot of tourism, especially with biking and the outdoors,” adds Bechtler, who already bikes the rough rail bed with her grandson on trips to Beaver Park.
Expressing the fan-base of Where’s the Smoke BBQ, Riley said the owner brought in $2000 in one day after being closed for a month of renovations. While this is certainly a testament to the popularity of a local hotspot, it also shows this town of under 500 is hungry for dining options.
Locals won’t be the only ones leaving the tips. Ga. Hwy. 11 traffic brings motorists through town daily since it serves as a short-cut between I-75 and I-85. “Since Baxter, traffic has been up ten-fold,” explains Riley.
The Town Center transformation may come to pass in a matter of months, with the plan going out to bid as early as this month. The project carries a budget of $150,000. The Decatur-based landscape designer who shaped the plans for the Nonie Needham Nature Trail also drew the rough draft for the Town Center. Already, the old railroad rails have been lifted by Norfolk Southern. Engineering and surveying for drainage and the underground infrastructure are complete, adds Riley.
The town is waiting on negotiations for Newton Trails' acquisition of the corridor (a 50-foot-wide band managed by Newton Trails) to be finalized, says Sara Vinson, Chair of Newton Trails. “That's when trail development can begin.” She is looking forward to working with the mayor and council as they fine-tune their rough draft and revitalize their downtown.
Rolling eastward, the trail will tie Nonie Needham Nature Trail & Educational Path with Beaver Park.
The Nature Trail— recently finished and dedicated to the beloved namesake, local leader and advocate of education—rambles over a hillside dotted with colorful bird houses, a pollinator garden, outdoor classroom, and native flowering trees, rounding the hillside to Mansfield Elementary School. “People absolutely love it,” says Riley, referring to recent trail walkers and families.
Beaver Park, named for Beaver Manufacturing that granted the long-term lease to the citizens of Mansfield some years ago, is a busy local hub for baseball, softball, tennis, walking, playground romps, picnics and parties under the covered pavilion.
Mansfield’s vision statement expresses a desire to remain a rural community while rejuvenating its central business district. Mayor Riley understands this balance between community and commerce. His family roots date back to the late 1700s in southwest Newton, and he saw his future home when he restored his great aunt’s 114-year-old farmhouse in Mansfield. He is also the founder/CEO of THP Creative in Conyers. On this day, he pauses to greet residents and praises the gentleman who spearheaded the new Super Seniors’ Tuesdays (a game night for seniors at the Mansfield Community Center). He is still wearing the orange safety vest and hard hat he donned when the City installed a new transformer for Beaver Manufacturing earlier.
This mayor and council foresee a trail that will bring community together and lead others to town. Meanwhile, the City of Newborn is making their own plans to carry the vision eastward.