Scenic downtown Covington has been in the national and local spotlight more than ever recently, as the popular "Vampire Diaries" TV show began filming in earnest for its third season, while community leaders opened up a new debate this week about access to the square.
For more than a year, the city and county have been discussing the role and organization of Main Street Covington, a non-profit group dedicated to enhancing the downtown, which the city and county jointly fund.
The two groups were on the verge of approving an intergovernmental agreement clarifying their relationship, but before the county agreed to sign, some commissioners asked for a review of the permit process used to request events on the square.
Commissioner Mort Ewing said Tuesday night he has heard complaints since he became a commissioner that the Main Street Board of Directors restricts access to the park, which is the property of the county.
"I don't think they limit the access; I think there are requirements for the use of the park," Chairman Kathy Morgan said.
"I beg to differ with you, they limit access," said Ewing with conviction. "I know for a fact; that's the reason I'm bringing it up during the discussion of this contract. I've been here 10 and a half years and it's been a problem for 10 and a half years. Now's the time to address it. That's all I'm asking madam chair - that access not be restricted by the Main Street board."
The board of commissioners voted to table the agreement until the first meeting in October, so that issues can be addressed by the three parties. When asked for clarification after the meeting, Ewing declined to comment.
Commissioner Tim Fleming said Friday that he has heard past instances where certain groups or organizations wanted to do things on the square and were denied.
"They couldn't do it," Fleming said. "The taxpayers of Newton County own that square and anyone has the right to use that park if it's available. Of course, they have to reserve it and we have a process for that. We have the permit process, but we want to review the current process and make sure the county agrees with it."
Main Street Director Josephine Kelly said she did not know of a case where access was ever denied to the park, but that parties do have to go through a permitting process that has to be approved by the Covington Police Department and Main Street.
"That's part of the management of the park. Because it's a public space, no one can be denied access. We often have to explain that to people that want to hold wedding ceremonies on the square," Kelly said. "We've been administering that process for a long, long time, but if there are concerns we're more than willing to work through those."
Kelly said the permit process is very simple and permits can be downloaded online or picked up at the office; groups are only charged to use the park if they need to hook up to the city's electricity.
Fleming said he is working to coordinate another meeting between the committee that helped develop the intergovernmental agreement. The committee had two members from Covington, the county and Main Street.
Main Street organization
The heart of the agreement is not expected to change because it was designed to clarify what the city and county pay for and who the Main Street director reports to.
The need for a contract was two-fold: no formal contract existed (only a verbal agreement) and the city wanted to move forward with plans that the county could not afford to fund a 50 percent share of.
In May 2010, the Covington City Council had reached a tentative consensus that Main Street need to be expanded to include a part-time employee ($15,000 salary) to assist Kelly, as well as a standard 5 percent raise for Kelly.
At the time, current Main Street Chairwoman Billie Jean Whatley said her organization was taking on more work and she proposed formalizing an agreement to account for the increased workload. The Main Street board is a volunteer group.
"The office has had to assume an increasing scope of work beyond what is conventionally considered downtown development and falls more within classification of community services," Whatley said in an April 19, 2010 letter to the city.
Whatley said that Kelly was coordinating more than ever with the chamber and Covington Redevelopment Authority and working with community goals outside the immediate downtown.
Main Street's budget would have increased from $82,910 to $101,443, but the county could not fund its 50 percent and the changes were scrapped.
The new contract stipulates that the county and city will continue to fund Main Street at a 50 percent split, but if either party decides to expand its work with Main Street it can pay for that additional work on its own without commitment from the other government.
This could allow the city to pursue projects such as public restrooms in the downtown or a storefront on the square dedicated to film memorabilia, if it's willing to assume the full cost.
The contract also specifies that the Main Street director will be a city employee and report to the city manager, though her salary will still be split 50-50 by the city and county.
The Covington City Council approved the funding and organization agreement with the county and Main Street, but will have to vote again if the issue of square access is built into the agreement.
The council tabled a separate agreement with just Main Street regarding the hotel/motel tax dollars the organization receives to promote tourism. The council wanted more time to look over this agreement.
Kelly said the Main Street board will hold its annual retreat Sept. 6, to reassess its long and short-term goals. Downtown Covington is defined as being bordered by Williams Street and Norfolk Southern right-of-way on the north, Conyers Street on the south, Emory Street on the west and East Street on the east.
In related news, both the city and county agreed to a contract that specifies that Keep Covington-Newton Beautiful will remain under the county and that the director will be a county employee. Originally, the city had proposed taking over Main Street completely and giving the county complete control of KCNB, but the county wanted to retain a stake in Main Street.