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Chamber could take Main St. program
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The Main Street Covington program is set to undergo some major changes as local officials, led by Covington Mayor Ronnie Johnston, seek to consolidate and improve efforts to increase tourism and retail business growth.

The Covington City Council voted unanimously Monday night to contract with the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce to run the Main Street program, instead of the having a government employee handle the task. Longtime director Josephine Kelly, a city employee, recently announced her retirement.

Johnston brought the idea before the chamber board at its May 29 meeting, and, after some discussion between members, the chamber board decided it was interested in further discussing the idea, said board chairman Paul Murphy Tuesday.

Murphy sent a letter to the mayor outlining conditions under which the chamber would agree to take over the program, including the city and chamber agreeing on a clear list of objectives and criteria for success and the city providing sufficient funding and latitude to meet those criteria.

If the details can be worked out, Murphy said he felt placing Main Street under the chamber would be right in the chamber’s wheelhouse, given its success with other tourism and economic development.

“(Main Street) dovetails nicely with a lot of other things we do,” Murphy said. “I think we can all see that the (downtown) area is a gem for Covington and Newton County.”

As an executive with local medical industry C.R. Bard, Murphy said he would love to be able to take potential executive recruits on a tour of a vibrant downtown, “so they see this not only as a place to come and work, but a place to work and live. We’ve had that challenge over the years. That is a real challenge,” he said.

For his part, Johnston believes putting Main Street, tourism and economic development all under one roof — at a combined annual government investment of around $500,000 — will increase those areas’ effectiveness through synergy. 

Tourism and Main Street both get revenue from the hotel/motel tax, around $200,000 and $100,000 respectively, while economic development gets funding directly from the city and county.

Johnston told the council several cities already contract with their chambers to handle Main Street programs. Main Street is a national, non-profit program that seeks to revitalize and grow downtowns while preserving and enhancing historical elements.

Johnston said he would like to see downtown events promoted more widely to spread the name of Covington around the state and nation in an effort to bring more visitors, money and businesses to the city and county.
“I want Covington to be known across the nation as a place to come to visit, do business or live and raise a family,” Johnston said at the meeting.

Johnston said he would also like to see more accountability for the Main Street program, as well as tourism and economic development, and proposed crafting a contract that clearly identifies the services the city is paying for and the results it’s expecting.

The contract would be reviewed annually, Johnston said Tuesday.

While the city and chamber are working on a contract, Johnston suggested they also look to revise the contracts for economic development and tourism to make performance more measurable.

“There is no accountability for Main Street right now, regardless of whether that’s good or bad, it’s wide open,” Johnston said, adding that the new structure will hold the organization accountable for completing its goals.

The council agreed to form a committee, comprised of the mayor and council members Janet Goodman and Chris Smith, as well chamber board members and possibly some members from the existing Main Street Board of Directors to create a new agreement.

“If (economic development, Main Street and tourism) join forces and work more effectively together, we’ll get better results. We want a better downtown and to promote it more effectively,” Johnston said. “We want to be smarter with branding, be more professional and take it to a whole other level and put enough resources where that will be the expectation. I want everybody in Georgia to know about Covington, that’s the goal.”

While he has heard questions about the timing of the move, Johnston said he brought up the proposal to the council at a budget work session before the current director, Kelly, announced her retirement.

At this time, it is unclear if the Main Street Board of Directors would remain in existence if a switch takes place.

“There will still be a board, but I just don’t know what that will look like at the moment,” said City Manager Leigh Anne Knight in a Tuesday email. “The current board will still remain active until the transition is complete and final decisions have been made and could possibly continue intact after that point if that is the best decision for the program. As you are aware, there are many ongoing projects and special events that Main Street is responsible for and we want to see continued.”

The above move is precipitated by the city gaining full control of the Main Street program, which is one of Johnston’s issues with the program.

The council also voted to agree to a swap with the county in which the city will take over full responsibility — including funding — of Main Street, while the county would assume full responsibility for Keep Covington/Newton Beautiful.

The city and county have historically co-funded both programs. The Newton County Board of Commissioners was expected to vote on the issue Tuesday night.