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Posted: June 13, 2013 9:22 p.m.

Main Str not ready to OK mayor's idea

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Attached is a PDF of the letter from Covington Mayor Ronnie Johnston to both the Main Street Covington Board of Directors and Newton County, asking both those parties to terminate early the agreement between the three parties for the operation of ...

The board of directors of the Main Street Covington program expressed displeasure at being kept out of the loop, and its members are not yet ready to OK a proposal to move the program, which is responsible for downtown development and marketing, under the local Chamber of Commerce.

The city of Covington, Newton County and the Main Street board have an agreement that dictates how the Main Street organization is run, but Covington Mayor Ronnie Johnston wrote a letter to the board asking it to terminate that agreement before July 1 to allow the city to move forward with restructuring the organization by placing it under the chamber.

At a sometimes contentious meeting, the Main Street board voted unanimously Wednesday to table the mayor’s request until it could discuss the issue further.

Outgoing board member Michael Geoffroy, a local attorney, asked why the board wasn’t consulted about the switch and why members were the last to be informed. Other board members agreed they were not ready to vote on such a change and wanted more answers about the future of the program and the current board, which is still working to plan events and programming for downtown.

Earlier in the meeting, Johnston said he had purposely kept discussions limited to the city and county because he wanted to avoid “outside motivations” becoming involved.

He’s also said before he’s seen processes in government get bogged down, using the two-year process that created the current Main Street agreement as an example, and said Wednesday he is willing to take the heat in order to get the change accomplished.

The agreement between the three parties can be terminated at any time after a 90-day notice period, but the mayor requested an early termination so that the city and county can make some changes before their new fiscal years start July 1.

The city and county jointly fund a portion of the Main Street program and the environmental education program Keep Covington/Newton Beautiful; the governments have agreed to streamline operations by having the city take full control and financial responsibility for Main Street, while the county does the same for KCNB.

In the meantime, the city has already voted to move Main Street under the operation of the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce, provided an acceptable contract is worked out between the two parties that details responsibilities, objectives, payment and criteria to measure success.

The plan is to form a committee consisting of two members apiece from the City Council, county, Main Street board and chamber to create the contract. Time is of the essence as a new Main Street director has to be hired within 120 days of a vacancy; former director Josephine Kelly resigned from the job June 7. If the city contracts with the chamber to run Main Street, then the chamber will be responsible for hiring a new director, not the city.

State regulations require the program to have an interim director. Former city manager Steve Horton initially agreed to fill in, but City Manager Leigh Anne Knight said Wednesday Horton felt there were other things he needed to work on.

Planning Director Randy Vinson was named interim director instead, which Knight said would be easier since Vinson already works in the city’s planning and zoning building, where the Main Street office has been housed for the past several months.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Main Street board members wanted to know what the future of the board would be, but Knight said it was too early to know what the structure would look like under the chamber. She said for now, the board is expected to operate as it has been, because Main Street’s program of work, including events and programs, has already been approved for the next year from July 2013 to June 2014.

She also emphasized Thursday, said that the city’s desire is to continue to fund a fully functional Main Street program.

Vinson said this was the opportunity for the Main Street board to step up and shape the future of its structure.
Multiple members expressed concern about their future, because up until this point, the Main Street board has been an independent board that did not report to anyone.

Board member Andrea Smith, who owns Square Perk Café, wondered if the Main Street board would have a smaller voice under the bigger umbrella of the chamber. She said the chamber could also install whomever it wanted on the board.

However, part of Johnston’s issue with Main Street to date had been the fact that the program’s director had to report to two bosses, the city manager and the board of directors.

Board Chair Serra Phillips said she had made the mayor — who had left before the discussion ramped up — aware of her concerns previously, but said she also knows that the city has the power as “the hand that feeds us” and could have slashed the budget a long time ago but has continued to fund it a good level.

Main Street also receives around $96,000 annually in hotel/motel taxes, but it’s the Covington City Council that votes to send that money to Main Street.

Geoffroy made the motion to table the mayor’s request, admitting the proposal had potential positives but saying he didn’t feel informed enough to break an agreement everyone had worked so hard to form the first time.

The board agreed to have a called meeting at 8:30 a.m. June 18 and to invite the mayor and a representative from the chamber to discuss the issue further.

However, the Main Street board will look fundamentally different at that date, as Wednesday was the last day for four members: Geoffroy; The News’ general manager T. Pat Cavanaugh; Justin Sullivan with Sherwood’s Flowers; and Vanessa Virgin, owners of New Shoez.

Three new members were voted in: Nicole Greer, owner of Twelve Oaks Bed & Breakfast; Alan Sebaran with the Covington Police Department; and Denise Spires, owner of Spires Interiors & Designs.

In addition, Mayor Johnston has set up a town hall meeting at 5 p.m. Friday at The Center for Community Preservation and Planning on Washington Street.

Johnston has been pushing for an improved Main Street program for months, including a proposal last year to hire a consultant to study it and recommend changes.

He has said most recently he wants to see Covington and its events marketed around the state and country and believes that is more effectively done by linking Main Street with tourism efforts, which already are handled by the chamber.

Chamber officials have expressed interest in the mayor’s proposal, but will not make any final decision until a contract is drawn up.

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