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Posted: August 8, 2013 9:30 p.m.

City to light up square for holidays

The holidays will be much brighter in downtown Covington this year.

The city of Covington and Main Street Covington will spend up to $40,000 on additional Christmas lights for the square, and possibly surrounding streets, in an effort to create a holiday tourist destination.

The Covington City Council voted unanimously Monday to spend up to $20,000 on additional lights, with Main Street covering the other half. All costs will be paid with hotel/motel tax revenue.

Mayor Ronnie Johnston said the city is trying to accomplish two things: to raise the city’s holiday celebration to a higher level, and to bring more tourists downtown to boost local businesses’ revenues.

"We’re trying to create an event that draws people here, and, to do that, we need to get people who are more professional (to decorate the square)," Johnston said Thursday.

"To me, this whole movement is about us leveraging hotel and motel tax money to do exactly what it’s supposed to do: bring in more tourism and help the downtown economy and even the economy on (U.S. Highway) 278," Johnston said.

Johnston said the idea is similar to the city’s Fourth of July event this year, which was bigger than ever and drew people from surrounding towns.

Interim Main Street Director Randy Vinson said the city has emailed a request for proposals for the lights display to three interested firms and is seeking other bids, including through an ad in The News today. Bids are due by Aug. 29, and if a contract is awarded, that will be done no later than Sept. 19 in order to give a firm time to have its display operational by Nov. 19 for the city’s holiday season.

The hope is that the city will only contribute to the effort for one year and that its share will be taken over in future years by Main Street or the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce’s tourism office, City Manager Leigh Anne Knight said Monday.

Various options could be to buy the lights outright, to lease them, or to do a lease-purchase, Vinson said Monday. In any case, a professional company would most likely be paid to do the setup and tear-down.

The original idea for the lights display came from Scoops owner Susan Kirk, who envisioned lights lining the rooftops, windows and architectural details (columns, awnings, etc.) of all the buildings facing the square. She said the display could help downtown merchants increase their sales during the crucial fourth quarter, when retailers make their biggest push.

Kirk also envisioned having all the trees in the tree wells lit from the base to the top. She wants the Christmas tree that is annually set up in the square lit with thousands more synchronized lights that would display during a handful of Christmas songs, using the new speakers the city recently installed.

Kirk also suggested that business owners showcase holiday greenery, wreaths and other décor on their storefronts to enhance the overall presentation.

Johnston has enthusiastically supported the idea.

"This is not a one-night event; a 30-day event is what this really is. The goal is to do this in a way that we’re attracting 500 to 1,000 people driving through the square every night," he said.

Considering that the city already gets some complaints about the brighter white lights it installed downtown and other previously installed decorative efforts, Johnston said he understands some people may not like the more extravagant decorations.

"It’s kind of a personal preference, but the whole idea is not to lose any of the charm of the whole thing but take it to another level," Johnston said.

Though final costs are not known, Kirk previously estimated the cost of electricity would range from $35 to $111 per block during the duration, assuming low-wattage LED lights.

She suggested the lights would be lit from the Monday before Thanksgiving through the Christmas season.

Main Street Chair Serra Phillips said business owners are excited, but so are some residents who have been talking about a bigger celebration for years.

"A lot of people in the past, even locals who have been around for a while, said this is something you dreamed of and thought would never happen in Covington, but say, ‘What a great idea and thought to apply to our beautiful, historic district,’" Phillips said.

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