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City Council approves increased Chamber of Commerce spending
Covington purchases NSP homes
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The Covington city council voted to increase its investment in the Chamber of Commerce by $66,500 in an effort to recruit a highly-qualified president and bring in more business.

Chamber President John Boothby resigned in Sept., but the chamber has been unable seriously to pursue replacements, because it has been in discussion with the city and county about the future direction of and level of spending on economic development.

The additional $66,500 annual investment is planned to go toward a higher president's salary to lure in a top-flight candidate, around $125,000, and to go toward wining and dining prospective businesses.

The vote is contingent on a corresponding vote by the Board of Commissioners to also increase their investment by $66,500. The BOC tabled the matter last week until its Dec. 15 meeting. The commissioners wanted to update a Chamber contract that was last changed in 2002 with more specific responsibilities and a new budget that showed how the increased investment would be used.

However, the Covington council did not have the same reservations. The city updated its contract in Jan. 2008, and Mayor Kim Carter said it satisfied the city's current needs.

"In the past, there have been issues of a lack of in-depth communication and reporting. The Chamber board has taken proactive steps to correct this. In addition, Chairman Morgan, Shannon Davis, Scott Willis, Chamber board member for economic development, the former Chamber President and I have been meeting on a monthly basis for the last six months," Carter said in an email Tuesday.

The increased spending will bring the city's annual investment to $120,500. The change will be effective when a new Chamber president is hired, but the city will contribute no more than $30,000 for the remainder of this fiscal year, which ends June 30.

Joe Stier, chairman of the Chamber's board of directors, was on hand to answer questions, but began by addressing rumors surrounding Boothby's resignation.

"I wanted to clarify his resignation was not the result of any one event or any one person's opinion about what may have been or may not have been going on. And out of respect for John I won't go into a lot of details about that, but is it important to note there were a lot of, what I would call, moving parts in relation to his role as president of the chamber that ultimately resulted in his decision to resign," Stier said. "And there have been a lot of comments and rumors out there among the community, but again I can sit here and tell you it was not the result of any one particular event."

He said that the Chamber asked for increased public investment because the economic development environment is very competitive. He said it's imperative for a president to be found soon, because the Chamber has been without a leader for three months.

"It's critical for us to be united and moving forward on economic development or we run the risk of creating issues at the state level that will take a long time to overcome. Businesses are going to go to areas where project managers tell them to go and if they pick up problems in Newton County, and that is beginning to be the case, that is not something that you can turn that switch on or off. And you can disagree with that or say we don't like that, but the way we control it is by working cooperatively and moving forward."

As far as the county's concerns, Stier said Chairman Morgan was asking the commissioners to provide her with a list of any changes that they want made to their current contract. As far as requests for more specific accountability measures, Stier said that may not come in contract form.

"With regard to some of those specific requests on measurements and expectations, that's probably a longshot to have a contract like that. What we see, quite frankly, the board needs to set the goals and direction of this individual," he said. "You have a new person coming into the community in a time of economic development that is, quite honestly, pretty tough, and if you set a 6-month target ... of specific results, the chances of successfully meeting those is slim. I see us being more general and setting parameters."

Stier said the board of directors will take the BOC's recommendations and likely tweak the contract, and he said he fully expects the BOC to vote on an increase next week.

Councilman John Howard once again reiterated that if negotiations with a candidate are in the final stages, and the Chamber finds they need a little more money to land that big fish, the council might be willing to increase its investment further.

In other news, the city finally purchased homes as part of its Neighborhood Stabilization Program. The city closed Tuesday afternoon on eight townhomes in Walker's Bend, on Ga. Highway 81 about halfway between Covington and Porterdale, Planning Director Randy Vinson said.

The city used all of the $428,070 in stimulus money that it was awarded. Vinson said the homes have never been lived in and will require very little to make them move-in ready. He said the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity, the city's non-profit partner for this project, is getting ready to do what little work is necessary on the homes, and Habitat hopes to have the families in the homes by the end of the year.

In other housing news, Senior City Planner Michelle Larsen resigned on Friday to take a position with Michael Hightower's consulting firm, The Collaborative Firm.

In personnel news, the city hired a grant writer/financial coordinator. Local resident Randy Connors was chosen because he had the most up-to-date grant writing training as well as substantial financial experience.