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Mayor unveils plan to attract retail
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Covington Mayor Ronnie Johnston rolled out a three-point plan at Monday night’s Covington City Council meeting to attract new residents, put existing residents to work and attract more retail stores to the city.

Johnston acknowledged Newton County’s decades-old problem of a lack of shopping, dining and entertainment options — particularly medium to high-end ones — and said he hoped that his plan, which includes incentives for both new residents and retail business, would help make the city more attractive to retail stores and potential residents, such as Baxter employees.

Covington has the lowest household income in the region, Johnston said, which is an issue because retail stores look at mainly population and income levels. For years, local chamber of commerce officials have said that without a higher per capita or household income, the county will struggle to attract quality retail options.

Recruiting retail
While retail stores will locate where the market dictates, Johnston hoped to actively recruit such businesses in the meantime by offering various incentives if warranted, based on the level of investment by a company and the number of jobs it would bring — similar to how industrial recruitment is handled.

Potential business incentives that can now be offered include:
• up to a 10 percent reduction in water and sewer tap fees
• up to 20 percent reduction in monthly utility charges for a specified period of time
•other inducements such as utilities being built or run to a business location

• property tax reductions
• the waiving of permit and plan review fees.

The idea would be to use the incentives judiciously as needed to attract retail options that residents and the city really want. The recruitment of retail would be handled either by the city or the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce.

A business owner must agree to retain new employees for a minimum of 24 months in order to keep the savings, according to the plan.

Johnston used Cracker Barrel as an example of a company the city to recruit. The restaurant had considered opening a location in Covington off Ga. Highway 142, but eventually backed out. Johnston said the city could send a coalition of people down to the Cracker Barrel headquarters and show corporate officials the incentives the city has in place.

“We can’t just wait for them to knock on our door,” he said. “If we wait we might have more Waffle Houses and those kinds of things. But I think it’s time we try to take this community to the next level and not have everyone drive out of the city or county for a movie and those type things.”

The council unanimously approved a resolution allowing the city to use the incentives in the future by a 5-0 vote; Councilman Mike Whatley was absent because of a sickness. All future incentives would be agreed upon on an individual basis and approved by the city council.

New residents
In order to motivate new residents to move into and invest in Covington and raise the city’s median income, Johnston is proposing offering new home credits.

If any resident, whether they are relocating or live in the area, chooses to either build or buy a new home in Covington, they will now be eligible to receive a $2,400 “relocation expenses” payment from the city if they live in the home for 24 months.

In addition, these residents could also have their water and sewer tap fees waived if they agree to live in the house for at least 60 months; those cost of both a water and sewer tap is around $5,000-$6,000, according to city officials. In this case, a resident who participated in the program would have a lien placed on their property for value of those fees. After 60 months, the lien would be taken off. However, if the homeowner moves out of the property before 60 months, the lien would then be enforced against the property, so that the city would ensure it would collect its fees.

The homes eligible for these programs must be new and owner-occupied, not rentals; however, there is no price-limit placed on the homes. So, someone could build a $75,000 home and still be eligible, Johnston said.

The new resident incentive package will be capped at the first 20 qualified applicants, afterwhich point it will be reviewed to see if it needs to be continued.

Normally, a city cannot simply give away money, as City Attorney Ed Crudup said that is unconstitutional, but in this case the city is receiving the benefit of investment by the new resident, so the payments would be legal.

According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics quoted by the city, Covington had a only a 47 percent homeownership rate compared to a 67 percent Georgia homeownership rate from 2007 to 2011. As of March 2013, there were 570 residential lots that had been platted for development but remained vacant.

Johnston said he’d love to see this program instituted county wide, though other governments would obviously have to approve incentive packages of their own.

The council also unanimously approved a resolution for the housing program.

Workforce development
The final prong of the plan is a new workforce training program that helps those currently unemployed get jobs.

This proposal was not yet voted on, but the basis of the program would be getting people up to speed academically and skills wise with basic computer, math, language, literacy and practical job skills; this would be an ongoing process.

People who got up to speed skills wise would then go through a four-week program that would train residents about how to job search, prepare for a job and behave in a job, including etiquette, customer service and conflict management.

The program would be run by Shamica Redding, the owner of Energema, a non-profit organization that teaches financial knowledge and responsibility.

Although the four-week class topic may seem basic to many, Redding said not all residents were taught those basic skills growing up. She said the program was endorsed by local human resources managers and the chamber’s employer committee. The program will seek to partner with real world companies as well, Johnston said.

The goal would be to spend $90,000 each year for two years on the program, split 50-50 between the city and county. Johnston said he planned to approach the county soon with the proposal. That amount of money would be able to send approximately 300 people through the program, Johnston and Redding estimated.

Even if the county does not participate, Johnston would still like to have the city pay $45,000 and do the program itself just for city residents.

“We need more retail, but we also we got to have people here who can afford to partake in the retail” Johnston said. “The city of Covington is in the leadership position. We have the ability to make some of these changes, to make differences, and it’s time we lead, it’s time we stand up and it’s time we position the city for a better tomorrow.”