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Posted: September 14, 2013 7:00 p.m.

Chamber will take Main Street program

'Vampire Diaries' donates to downtown

Though details are still being worked out, the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors has agreed to bring the Main Street Covington program under its roof.

Chamber President Hunter Hall told the Main Street Board of Directors Thursday he believes Main Street’s downtown promotion and development will fit naturally with the chamber’s existing contracts to promote tourism and recruit industry and business.

While the chamber has been pushing Covington as a tourism destination, Hall said there wouldn’t be any tourism program without Covington’s successful downtown and Main Street program. Newton County doesn’t have beaches or mountains, so its tourism is tied primarily to its filming history and current draw as a filming locale, Hall said, in which the downtown area and square park play a major role.

Such a strategy requires the continued draw of filming by aggressively promoting scenic locations and ensuring a streamlined process for obtaining filming permits. Hall said a struggling downtown would "erode the bedrock" of tourism.

Hall said the square also plays an important role in recruiting industries and company executives. Chamber officials try to schedule tours during downtown concerts, which show "Americana in its finest hour." The allure of successful small-town America is a powerful recruiting tool, they said.

Tying industrial retention and Main Street’s events together will also allow the chamber to keep companies better in the loop. Hall said around half of Newton County  industries’ workforce  is from outside the county, so officials don’t always know what’s going on. As those companies seek better work-life balances for their employees, they want to know about entertainment options and ways to better connect to their community, he said.

Hall said the chamber board and city of Covington are continuing to work through the legal side of the agreements as well as details of the physical transition. Main Street’s office is currently located in the Covington planning and zoning building, but Hall said it’s important for employees to work in proximity so they can actually have synergy and share resources.

He said the Main Street board and program would remain intact and would come over to the chamber as a subcommittee that reports directly to the chamber board. The move will create a clear reporting structure and delineation of responsibilities; Hall said reporting structure has frequently been an issue for Main Street directors, who previously had multiple bosses in the Main Street board and the city administration.

In addition, chamber officials would work with the Main Street group on creating and implementing a strategic plan, something Hall said the chamber does well.

Main Street board member Andrea Smith, owner of Square Perk, said there will need to be an effort to keep all downtown merchants in the loop, because those merchants have felt ignored in the past.

The chamber’s plan is still to hire a consultant to work out the details of moving the Main Street program under the chamber and to prepare the way for a new full-time director, after long-time director Josephine Kelly resigned earlier this year. The consultant will be paid with money the city gives Main Street for its director. Main Street receives a direct donation from the city for personnel and receives hotel/motel tax money for programming and operations. One detail that will have to be worked out is what is included in a chamber membership and how that will compare to the benefits of a Main Street membership, Hall said. The chamber historically collects dues, while Main Street does not.

‘Vampire Diaries’ donation

"The Vampire Diaries" TV show donated $5,000 to the city to use to improve the downtown Covington.

Main Street board Chair Serra Phillips said one idea was to use the money to pay for part of a long-talked-about project to install public restrooms downtown.

Smith said the tents usually used for concerts on the southeast corner of the square were destroyed and asked if the money could be used to put up a more permanent structure. The county technically owns the square park, but interim Main Street Director Randy Vinson, who is also the city’s planning director,  said the city was trying to work out an agreement with the county through which the city would take over maintenance of the square park.

Board member Susan Kirk, who owns Scoops, suggested a "Hollywood of the South"-themed mural.

Board member Nicole Grier, who owns Twelve Oaks Bed and Breakfast, asked about using the money for advertising to draw more people downtown.

No final decision was made.

"The Vampire Diaries" made a previous donation to the city years ago that was to be used for a stage for a civic center, if Covington built one. However, since the civic center project stalled, the money was used on the snowflake light decorations used on the square last year, Phillips said.

 Better-looking signs

The Main Street board also approved three façade grants for:

Sunbelco Rentals for an awning at the Just Dream building for $750.

• The Cork Boutique for a new sign for $750.

O’Hannah’s Hair and Boutique for $450.

Downtown businesses looking to improve the exteriors of their buildings are eligible for façade grants. The grants are 50/50 match reimbursement grants for up to $750 total.

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