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Chamber ramps up retail recruitment
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Amidst all the Christmas caroling, there's a general refrain that Newton County residents can be heard repeating during the holidays: "There's nowhere to shop."

The Covington/Newton County Chamber of Commerce is trying to change that. They want to get more retailers here, and they're trying to recruit them in batches.

"People want us to recruit Belk, but they're not interested in a standalone site," said Chamber President Hunter Hall. "We need other stores, entire shopping centers. We need to be able to recruit six to 10 stores (at a time)."

Hall, who attended a recent meeting of the International Conference of Shopping Centers, said the industry trend is described as co-tenancy. Co-tenancy provides obvious challenges, because more stores must be recruited and significant chunks of land are needed. That's challenging at any time, but in the current economy, retailers are pulling back into only the highest-density markets, Hall said.

Unlike manufacturing industries, for which communities actively compete by offering incentive packages, retail businesses have not historically been recruited. Major retailers are typically attracted to communities by four factors: Population, per capita income, median household income and traffic counts. Newton County scores well in population, but not so well in income levels. And aside from Interstate 20 Exit 93, most areas in the county simply don't offer enough visibility nor high enough daily car counts.

"People like Covington. They're interested in us, because we're not metro, but we're not rural either," Hall said. "People like Exit 93 in particular."

When a retailer locates in a community, it seeks to draw shoppers from the surrounding communities as well. That means Newton County is not going to be able to attract business that have already located in neighboring cities such as Conyers and Madison, because those stores would be competing with each other.

Instead, Newton County will have to focus on landing similar retailers that would be able to draw residents from surrounding communities. For example, instead of going after a Dick's Sporting Goods, which has locations in McDonough and Loganville, Newton County would try to appeal to a company like Eastern Mountain Sports.

Hall and Economic Development Director Shannon Davis have formed a commercial brokerage roundtable to connect with these companies. The roundtable includes commercial leasing agents like Morris Ewing Jr., who recently signed a deal to bring Cracker Barrel to Covington, and groups like Halpern Enterprises, which rents out Newton Plaza. The chamber is also seeking agencies that represent groups of businesses, which fits with the co-tenancy trend.

But the best way to promote retail growth, according to the chamber, is for it to concentrate on its main charges, recruiting industry and promoting small business.

"Our focus, first and foremost is job growth and income. Once we have those, then we'll see more retail," Hall said. "Until the economy sees discretionary spending increases, retail will continue to retract, but we're trying to position ourselves for future growth."