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Posted: October 24, 2013 8:10 p.m.

Chamber wants to enhance tourism

'In the Heat of the Night' tour, Civil War history events in the works

Newton County has a lot of tourism assets, but not the kind of organization and connectivity that turns all those assets into full experiences that keep tourists in town over multiple days.

So tourism officials are working to fully exploit the film and TV niche Covington has developed as the "Hollywood of the South" – including a "Heat of the Night" tour – and show off the county’s history, including preparing for the 150th anniversary of the Civil War in Georgia.

The goal is to increase overnight stays at area hotels, because it’s the 8 percent hotel/motel tax that generates the revenue that funds tourism development both countywide through the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce and in downtown Covington through Main Street Covington.

Who stays in our hotels?

Using a weighted average of hotel stays based on information from the city’s top three hotels – Hampton Inn, Holiday Inn and Baymont inn and Suites – the chamber found that 75 percent of overnight stays are corporate clients, and

only 25 percent are leisure stays, such as film tours or weddings and other events.

"We still need to be pushing strong to recruit industry, because those dollars are funding Main Street and tourism," Chamber Tourism Director Jenny McDonald told The News Wednesday. McDonald and chamber President Hunter Hall made a presentation to the Covington City Council Monday.

For those visitors who come for leisure, movie tours, weddings, Oxford College visits, sports tournaments, University of Georgia home games and visits to Atlanta Motor Speedway and outlet shopping centers in Atlanta are the most popular reasons for stays.

 Numbers rising

Newton County has seen tourism spending increase, based on data provided by the Georgia Dept. of Tourism. In 2011, Newton County had $2.95 million in local sales tax and hotel/motel tax receipts, a number that increased to $3.22 million in 2012. The numbers are estimated using a state formula. Rockdale County’s 2012 numbers were nearly identical, while Morgan and Walton counties lagged far behind. Newton County also had 9 percent year-over-year growth, besting its neighbors and the state average of 5 percent.

Hotel/motel tax revenue has increased every fiscal year since 2008-09, including rising to $378,351 in 2010-11, $400,872 in 2011-12 and $431,202 in 2012-13, according to city of Covington figures.

 Defining the visit

Hall opened his presentation to the city council by presenting a shotgun shell and a rifle shell.

"In the past, all of our efforts have been shotgun shots, spraying (our message) out there and praying that it hits," Hall said Wednesday. "With Jenny coming on board, our new direction is a rifle shot. We’re building analytics on web and social media to determine where our markets are."

The conclusion is that the biggest markets are movie and film-themed vacations and heritage/history vacations. The slogan "Hollywood of the South … and the rest is History!" was coined by local TV personality and involved resident Irene Smith.

The film-based vacations will include the already-existing Mystic Falls Tours, a booming business built on tours of area filming locations and local history tied to "The Vampire Diaries," one of TV’s most popular shows, as well as a to-be-developed tour of "In the Heat of the Night" locations, likely with some "The Dukes of Hazzard" spots throw in as well. Finally, the county has a rich history of movies filming scenes in Newton County, beginning with "A Man Called Peter" in 1954.

McDonald said getting an "In the Heat of the Night" tour created is the most immediate goal. Through her research, she has identified a total of 29 local locations that were used in the show. She’s mapping those out, recording audio of the history of the sites with Irene Smith, writing a script and spreading the word on the Facebook site dedicated to the show. She’s hoping for a three-hour tour.

Smith and former actress Maureen Dowdell – who played the part of Tracey Boggs – have agreed to lead the first tour themselves, and Grady Spradley, who was series star Carroll O’Connor’s double, has also agreed to participate.

McDonald has also tracked down some old memorabilia from the show – including old jackets and badges – that a man has agreed to loan to the county; Dowdell is also giving some old clothing from the show to the effort.

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