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Posted: February 8, 2014 10:00 p.m.

Main Street program to move under chamber

Main Street Covington, the program responsible for promoting and developing downtown, has been in a holding pattern with uncertainty about its future and no permanent director, but the program will finally transition under the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce next week.

The Covington City Council voted Monday to approve a contract with the chamber to oversee the Main Street program. Chamber President Hunter Hall said the chamber signed the contract and delivered it to the city Friday.

Main Street’s offices will be moving from the city’s planning and zoning building to the chamber next week, Hall said.

Interim Main Street Director Serra Phillips will stay on through next Thursday to help transition the program over to Sharlene Cannon, the consultant hired by the chamber to evaluate whether the Main Street program would work under the chamber.

Status of director search

Cannon will handle the reins until a permanent hire is made. The contract states the hire is to be made within 30 days, a change city officials requested Monday before approving the contract.

Hall said Cannon will be the interim director because officials felt that was the best way to make a clean and clear transition between the city and chamber.

A selection committee has been sorting through the 21 applicants the chamber received and expects to meet next Wednesday to go over the candidates, possibly for the final time.

According to the Jan. 16 letter the chamber sent to downtown merchants, each person on the selection committee listed his/her top 10 candidates and the top three out-of-area candidates were interviewed by phone.

The selection committee is comprised of Hall, Cannon, Tourism Director Jenny McDonald, Main Street board member Susan Kirk, and chamber board Chair Dan Murphy.

According to minutes from the Main Street Board of Director’s January meeting, Hall said there were three top candidates, but Hall clarified Friday he was referring to the top three out-of-area candidates. He said Friday the top three candidates have not been formally selected.

As for the Main Street board, that group will come over intact as it currently is, Hall said.

Similar to the committees for tourism and economic development, the Main Street board and its director will be the people in charge of handling the program’s day-to-day operations and budget but will ultimately report to the chamber’s Board of Directors.

One of Hall’s ongoing concerns has been subjecting the chamber itself – the core, small business component of it – to the Open Meetings Act and open records requests.

He said Friday the chamber’s legal counsel has been working to create a structure where the tourism and economic development arms would be separate nonprofit entities, like Main Street is now, so that those groups would be subject to the full Open Meetings Act requirements because they received public tax funding, while the chamber itself would remain private as it only receives dues from its members.

While the chamber Board of Directors would oversee all four entities — Main Street, tourism, economic development and small business – it would have two separate meetings: one that would be open to the public, where it discussed matters of Main Street, tourism and economic development; and a private one, where it discussed small business matters not related to public funds, Hall said.

The structure is in process and is not finalized, he said.

Funding

Main Street Covington is funded through two sources. The program receives hotel/motel tax money — a special tax on hotels and motels cities can charge that must be used to promote tourism-related activities — which was projected to be around $110,000 this fiscal year and pays for the actual work of the program and city funding. It budgeted for $86,426 for the fiscal year, which pays for the director’s salary and benefits and office rent and supplies.

The chamber will receive both sources under the contract.

Main Street was previously funded jointly by the city and county, but the city has been funding the entire program for the past several months when the prior arrangement was canceled.

Measuring success

Covington Mayor Ronnie Johnston first began pushing the idea of moving Main Street last June, because he believed moving Main Street under a chamber that already handles tourism and economic development would be beneficial to the development of downtown. Hall and the chamber board agreed there could be opportunities for synergy and the parties have been working on an agreement since.

The contract doesn’t include any specific criteria by which to measure success. Hall said the Main Street board and the new director will continue to be the people establishing goals for Main Street and creating its program of work.

"From the standpoint of some of the synergies Ronnie spoke of often and we agree with, we will begin to work on communications between the small business community, our tourism strategies (and) our economic development and our retail recruitment (efforts)," Hall said. "We’re bringing the Main Street district and those businesses and entities in the Main Street program into those discussions and making sure all of our systems and strategies are aligned and complementing, not contradicting, one another."

Hall said one of the biggest focuses for Main Street will continue to be helping the smaller, sole owners who don’t have corporate support and backing.

"One criteria is that downtown businesses continue to thrive," Hall said.

Outside of that, the hope is the program will continue to help small businesses thrive, help bring new businesses downtown and continue to improve the downtown events it holds.

Hall, who served on the Main Street board for five years from 2005 to 2010, said he’s excited the city had the confidence in the chamber to give it the Main Street program.

"The downtown district is such the heart of our community and the gathering place that most metro communities do not have. So the chamber and the chamber board feel like this program is very essential, not only to our tourism and film draw, but also to our quality of community," Hall said.

Main Street board member’s takes

While board members have generally been hesitant about the move to the chamber – namely because of a lack of information and certainty about the transition – they’re ready to get back on track.

Board member Andrea Smith, who owns Square Perk Café, said the slow transition has been frustrating and made it difficult for the program to work effectively. She said retail stores and restaurants generally need the most help early in the year when business is slowest, but a lack of clarity has forced the board to be reactive instead of proactively pursuing opportunities.

She said the board’s lack of power and role in the transition has also been difficult, but she’s "skeptically hopeful" about the future.

Phillips, the interim Main Street director, said two pros of moving under the chamber included gaining access to the daily visitors who come through the visitor’s center on Clark Street and hearing their ideads on what the downtown needs. and being under the same roof as economic development, including new retail recruiter Dave Bernd.

She said one of the cons will be the physical transition itself.

"Main Street Covington moved from The Center (at the corner of Washington and Lee streets) to the (city’s) planning and zoning building and it took quite a while for people to get used to our office and change," Phillips said. "I am sure the same will happen with our move to the chamber."

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