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Officials push for retail incentives
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Mayor Ronnie Johnston continues to push for more active recruitment of retail businesses, including restaurants, movie theaters and the like, and he’s hoping the city of Covington and the Newton County Industrial Authority may be able to bring some major companies to the area.

For the second straight meeting, the Newton County Industrial Development Authority on Tuesday discussed incentives for retail, and board members were generally in favor of pursuing a strategy.

Retail stores, including restaurants, entertainment businesses and merchandisers, tend to locate in communities that have a high enough population and per capita income (i.e. lots of people with money to spend).

They haven’t historically been offered incentives, except in the cases of particularly large developments.

However, since the economic downturn hit and the construction industry collapsed, Newton County hasn’t had luck attracting major retailers, outside of a new Walmart at the intersection of Brown Bridge and Salem roads.

Along with a recovering economy and selling the story of a community on the rise, Johnston and others hope offering some incentives will attract the kind of high-quality retail that officials and consumers crave.

Johnston said there are still some large areas of undeveloped land in the city that could accommodate major retailers, and he wants the city to be in the driver’s seat of recruiting new businesses.

The city has already started offering a small business incentive package, which also was pushed by the mayor.

One of Covington’s main commercial corridors that still has potential for development is Ga. Highway 142, particularly near I-20 exit 93; however, available parcels are being developed all the time.

Companies that already have located or made announcements in the past couple of years include IHOP, Sprint, Kauffman Tire, McDonald’s, Taco Bell and even a fifth Waffle House farther south.

Officials also see the Covington Bypass Road as a promising commercial corridor.

Courtney Bernardi, senior vice president of economic development for the local chamber, has been researching retail incentives offered by other counties and cities.

She said many communities that had success with retail didn’t use incentives before the downturn and said those using incentives now generally offer smaller items such as reductions on tap fees and expedited permit processes.

Property tax abatements or reductions are not generally offered.

While the state of Georgia doesn’t recruit retail like it does industries, Industrial Development Authority Chairman Danny Stone said the Georgia Electric Membership Corp. does. Jim O’Bryan is Georgia EMC’s manager of retail and commercial development and helps communities recruit retail; Stone said O’Bryan can make a presentation to local officials to explain how much money Newton County loses in sales tax dollars to surrounding counties, specifically Rockdale County.

Authority attorney Frank Turner Jr. said the county needs to be prepared to defend any incentives it does offer to companies and must avoid any issues of discrimination in selecting which businesses would get such incentives.

He recommended incentives be tied to job creation.

Even if the jobs offered by retail companies aren’t high paying, they could still fill a valuable void in the local job market, since younger workers and those trying to build up resumes often depend on entry-level retail jobs to get them started.

Hunter Hall, president of the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce, said lost jobs are an effect of retail leakage (where residents go outside their home county to shop) that’s not always discussed.

One potential pitfall is that existing businesses could feel that newcomers getting government assistance are unfairly competing with their existing business, but Johnston said he believes there is plenty of business for all and an improved retail community would help all businesses.

Bernardi and the chamber will continue to research retail incentives and bring information back to the authority.