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Posted: June 6, 2013 8:37 p.m.

Mayor pushes Main Street change

Covington Mayor Ronnie Johnston and Main Street Covington board chair Serra Phillips visited merchants on the square Wednesday morning to explain, and at times sell, the mayor’s plan for the new direction of the Main Street program and the county’s small business scene.

Johnson’s proposal to move the Main Street program under the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce is the latest in a series of moves he hopes will lead to more new businesses and new jobs in Newton County. He’s working to garner support in the community for his initiatives.

The Covington City Council voted unanimously Monday to create a contract with the chamber to run the Main Street program, and the Newton County Board of Commissioners followed with its support Tuesday by agreeing to “endorse the concept” and investigate its “feasibility.”

Some members of the Main Street board of directors were among the last officials to know about the proposed change, and Square Perk owner Andrea Smith had several questions Wednesday, asking why the move was being made and whether the chamber was the best place for Main Street.

Johnston said he believed the chamber was the right entity to run Main Street given the opportunity for synergy with tourism and economic development efforts, both of which the chamber runs on a contract basis with the city and county. He also said the government shouldn’t be in the business of marketing and promotion.

Main Street is a national nonprofit program that seeks to revitalize and grow downtowns while preserving and enhancing their historical elements, but Johnston wants to see the local chapter expand its definition of downtown past the square and improve the entire city.

He also wants to see Covington and Newton County marketed around the state and nation so that the area truly becomes a destination for its events, as well as tourism.

“It’s not that (the program) is totally broken by any means, but I want to go from a mom-and-pop (level) to the next level and take it up a notch. I want to brand this thing and the whole county and package the whole thing together,” Johnston told Smith.

He referenced the Square Perk advertising sign on U.S. Highway 278, which has brought more business to the coffee shop and restaurant, and said that was the kind of cooperation within the city he wanted to see.

Smith said she hasn’t felt like a chamber membership always benefited small businesses, but Phillips said she felt the addition of the Main Street program to the chamber would enhance its small business efforts and allow the groups to work more closely together.

“I look at the vision and goal: Our chamber has been outstanding; our Main Street has been outstanding. If we mesh and combine these two forces, the possibilities of growth within tourism to make the city and downtown square a destination and people understanding how wonderful this community is are endless,” Phillips told The News earlier Wednesday.

“We’ve got new businesses and great things happening… I think this is the right time, going forward into 2014. We’re ready for this, something bigger and greater than just what we have around here.”

Working through the details
The chamber is in favor of pursuing oversight of Main Street, assuming the terms of a contract are agreeable.
Johnston has said he wants a contract that clearly identifies objectives and measurable criteria for success, and chamber board chairman Paul Murphy agrees.

In a Thursday email to local media, Murphy said, if mutually agreed upon, “that success criterion will be the basis for determining strategies, budgets and personnel decisions moving forward.”

In the letter, Murphy said the understanding is that the chamber board would have oversight and authority to use Main Street funding as it sees fit to accomplish the goals.

The chamber will be held accountable through regular reporting to the Covington City Council.

In order to simplify the chain of command, the city and Newton County are planning to have the city take over full control of Main Street. Currently, the program is partially funded by both parties, in addition to receiving hotel/motel tax money. In exchange, the county would take over full control of Keep Covington/Newton Beautiful, which is also jointly funded; this program oversees various environmental cleanup and education programs.
Main Street’s total annual budget exceeds $210,000. The program was budgeted to receive $96,000 in hotel/motel tax this fiscal year and another $29,450 in revenue from other sources.

The city and county split the cost of the Main Street director’s salary and office expenses, which totaled $87,736 last fiscal year (the current year’s figures were not immediately available).

According to county budget documents, KCNB had a budget of $129,476 this fiscal year; however, the city only supplements the program and was budgeted to contribute $35,000 to the program this year, according to Covington City Manager Leigh Anne Knight.

Based on the above numbers, the county would save $8,868 with the change.

The City Council has unanimously approved making the swap, but the county only voted to endorse the idea and explore it in more detail.

County Attorney Tommy Craig said at Tuesday’s meeting there could be a couple of issues with a swap, though he didn’t know for sure.

He said Main Street issues permits to use the square, which is county property; in addition, KCNB helps the city with certain federal stormwater regulations.

If the chamber takes over the Main Street program, it would be responsible for hiring the next director, following the resignation of longtime director Josephine Kelly.

More small business help
Johnston also has put forth the idea of hiring a small business/retail recruiter. He said the city currently spends $93,000 a year on economic development with the Electric Cities of Georgia, a group that provides varied services to cities that sell electricity.

Johnston said he doesn’t know if the money is best spent there, and he will explore reallocating the money to a local position. The council has yet to vote on any such change. The position would focus on recruiting retail and small businesses to the entire county, not just Covington.

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