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Posted: January 25, 2014 10:00 p.m.

Newton County has big retail plans

Courtesy of the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce/

Attached is a PDF showing the retail fact sheet created by retail recruiter Dave Bernd and others.

Newton County needs more shopping options. For local residents, that’s an obvious statement, one they’ve been harping on for decades as Covington lost clothing stores and its lone movie theater and bowling alley.

Retail recruiter Dave Bernd is working on finding answers to the less-obvious questions of exactly which businesses are likely to succeed in Newton County and how to get them here. He’s finding that being armed with facts and figures helps.

While entertainment is high on residents’ wish lists, auto dealers, department stores and clothing stores are three of areas where residents most frequently buy outside of Newton County, according to the county’s latest retail study.

The county loses a potential $494.1 million in retail sales every year to businesses beyond its borders. That number has actually declined from studies in recent years, which estimated the county lost $750 million recently.

The number is still higher than Bernd and others had hoped, since Home Depot and the Walmart at Brown Bridge and Salem roads have opened in the meantime.

The "auto parts and dealers" category accounted for nearly a fourth of the gap at $120.3 million. General merchandise, which includes big-box department stores such as Walmart and Target, came in second at $56.2 million, while apparel and accessories was third at $48.2 million. Restaurants came in fourth at $31.4 million.

Bernd, whose official title is director of commercial development for the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce, said initial numbers are the first step, but the numbers need to be refined further.

For example, Newton County has Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge dealerships. The question is whether the unmet demand is mainly for foreign car dealerships, if customers in western Newton County are simply going to Rockdale County to buy their domestic cars, or both. The specifics will determine the strategy.

Marketek, the third-party contractor handling the retail study, will continue to drill down into the data and break it out by location, including areas such as U.S. 278, the square, Almon and Salem roads, and the area around Baxter International, which Bernd says is a hot spot of interest.

Nevertheless, Bernd is already using the data he has to aggressively target retailers.

He’s already made 120 contacts, most of them from a retail conference in Atlanta earlier this month, and has seven meetings set up between now and May with brokers who represent retail companies.

"The brokers are really the recruiters," Bernd said. "If I go to Belk (for example), Belk only works with one broker, so you have to work through that broker. (Belk) doesn’t work directly with me.

"I’m the gopher for the broker," Bernd said. His job is to do as much digging and gather as much information as possible to make the broker’s job, and a potential deal, easier.

Part of the pitch is the existing retail sales leakage of $494.1 million, which translates to a potential of 1.1 million square feet of store space. For perspective, the new Walmart at Salem and Brown Bridge roads is 151,955 square feet.

In addition, while Newton officials often think of Rockdale County as pilfering retail dollars from Newton businesses, Newton County has the potential to steal dollars from the small, bordering areas of Walton, Morgan, Jasper, Butts and even Henry counties.

The market area Bernd is selling has 152,805 people and 52,800 households, with a median age of 36 and a median household income of $52,365. The last number will be surprising to some, as income has frequently been mentioned as the reason Newton County has struggled to attract high-quality establishments.

"People often think we’re in horrible shape (in median income), like $30,000, but if you look at the data, we’re OK," Bernd said. "The data tells me we’re over $50,000. Rockdale County is at $60,000, but in the grand scheme, most of the other counties around us are in the $40,000s. We’re in OK shape, and with where we’re going with industry (recruitment and expansions), that’s only going to get better."

Bernd said Newton County’s median income is high enough to fit in the range of 70 percent of the companies he’s contacted.

While brokers are very easily able to get income, population density and car count numbers, it’s the intangible parts of the story that Bernd will try to sell, along with the super-specific data he’s gathering,

The county’s 2050 Plan is a comprehensive land use and future development plan that seeks to direct growth to reduce sprawl, and in turn save money by having more efficient transportation and infrastructure networks.

According to Bernd, "10 to 20 percent of brokers had heard of and understood the 2050 Plan, which is really interesting. They’re asking how we’re able to pull off the Baxters," Bernd said, even acknowledging the effect that Caterpillar’s arrival near Athens has on the region. "(Brokers are asking), ‘What is happening out east of Atlanta?’… all of a sudden they’re paying attention to us."

Another part of the story is selling the hometown feeling of Covington and Newton County, as well as the local farmers markets and even the schools.

Bernd said he’s focused on filling up the county’s existing retail inventory, with the biggest locations being the Covington Corners shopping center at the corner of Elm Street and U.S. 278 and the Martin’s Crossing shopping center, including vacant space next to Ingles.

Over the next six to 12 months, Bernd will continue to develop and craft the story to entice brokers and investors to the county, including U.S. 278, Ga. Highway 142, Ga. Highway 11 and the square.

"We have to make sure we don’t lose downtown. The square has to be a part of the process. We have to make sure we have full occupancy," Bernd said,

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