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Chamber in the black, programs moving forward
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Workforce development is being pushed, tourism is being focused on filming and local history, Main Street Covington is still being evaluated and the traditional Chamber of Commerce is trying to provide value to its members.

Hunter Hall, president of the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce, gave a state of the chamber address Monday and recapped the organization on multiple fronts.

The chamber has 534 members, 70 percent of which are companies in Newton County and 30 percent from other areas. Hall said the small-business part of the chamber — which he emphasized is a private entity separate from publicly-funded tourism and economic development — is on solid financial footing again after having to dip into reserves in 2009 and 2010 and breaking even in 2011; the chamber had a surplus in 2012.

One of the biggest changes was trimming down the chamber’s board of directors from 19 to nine members, which Hall said allowed the board to have better, more candid discussions.

The chamber president and board oversee small business, tourism and economic development, but tourism efforts are funded by the city through hotel/motel taxes and economic development is jointly funded by the city and county; the chamber has service agreements with local governments for tourism and economic development.

Discussions are  ongoing about transitioning Main Street Covington, the group that promotes and helps to develop downtown Covington, from the city to the chamber, and Hall said he expects the transition to be complete by the first quarter of 2014.

A consultant has been hired to study the program and provide opinions on whether a transition will work and how it should be handled.  Sharlene Cannon was Main Street director in Thomasville for years and has been hired for four months to, as Hall put it, figure out how a separate program such as Main Street, which has its own rules, requirements and success criteria, can be brought into the already complex structure of the chamber.

Hall said Cannon’s recommendations will be used to make a permanent Main Street director hire.

As for tourism and economic development, Hall reiterated the same points he made in recent updates to the Covington City Council and Newton County Board of Commissioners, though he stressed the importance of improving workforce development through the local school system.

"Our schools cannot fail. It’s not an option. It’s not an option," Hall said. "The residual effect is tremendous."

The ultimate goal of both tourism and economic development is to bring outside money into the local economy, creating a net positive, through tourist dollars and new industries that sell goods or provide services nationally and internationally.

As for the traditional chamber, Hall said he’s heard criticism that the chamber focuses on recruiting big industry and that small businesses get left behind. He said that’s criticism the chamber is willing to take because it believes industries drive the entire economy, creating and sustaining the secondary jobs at most small businesses.

Hall later reiterated the importance of the chamber remaining private, saying that status allows the chamber to tell elected officials no and not suffer political repercussions. If city or county leaders wanted to cut funding and move tourism, economic development or Main Street programs elsewhere because they believed someone else could do a better job, Hall said that would be their prerogative.

Members had few questions, though one man asked about crime and one woman asked about health care.

Hall said the county compares favorably against statewide crime numbers and said he hasn’t heard any issues raised about health care  from prospective industries or residents.