COVINGTON, Ga. – The Covington square was full Saturday evening as Newton High School prom-goers flocked to the downtown area to take pictures in their formal attire. The problem, however, was the number of traffic jams and parking problems that followed the beautiful dresses and tuxedos.
Angie Beszborn, owner of the Mystic Grill, raised her concern about the situation during the public comment portion of Monday night’s Covington City Council meeting.
“First, I want to say that I am so happy for the kids that they get to go do this. I don’t want to stop the pictures and the photo-ops on the square. This may be their only opportunity they ever get to dress up and go out with their high school friends,” she said “I also want to say that several events on the square are not always beneficial for us and possibly even other merchants. I won’t necessarily speak for them, but I will speak for myself and I also understand that not all events are designed to be for financial gain but about community support and I’m good with all that. I’ve never been here to complain about any event and this is not a complaint, but a request for help.
“My job requires me to constantly assess situations to see what could go wrong and that way I can be one step ahead and ready with a solution in case something happens. What I saw Saturday caused me great anxiety and there was not anything I could do to help. The square filled up at an abnormally alarming rate and it was complete gridlock with people parking everywhere even the middle of the street.”
Beszborn said cars were stopping in the middle of the street when they were unable to find parking and the sidewalks were covered with professional camera equipment. She attempted to wait out the situation, in hopes it would clear quickly, but ended up dialing 911 after several hours had gone by and traffic conditions were worsening.
“I realized if something happened no emergency vehicles could get in. Nobody could get out. Nobody could get in. There were cars, limos; I mean I have never seen that,” she said. “The second big epiphany hit me and that is somebody with a point to prove had just been handed an open admission, no matter what the weapon of choice.”
Councilman Michael Whatley echoed her concerns.
“There were cars and people everywhere,” he said. “There must have been 2,000 to 3,000 people on the square with professional camera outfits and screens and lights. It looked like somebody was making a salacious movie. They trashed the bathrooms in the restaurant I was in; they closed them down. I’m sure there were other people in and around the square that had the same problem.”
“This was almost a total disaster. There needs to be at least control in advance by us, and the school needs to call us and let us know what is going on, because it was a very dangerous situation.”
Beszborn said the city needs to plan ahead for prom season next year to prevent the same thing from happening again.
“There are a couple of other schools that are going to be having proms soon – they’re private schools, so not as large – so we have a year to plan,” she said. “It definitely needs direction and control.”
Councilman Josh McKelvey agreed. He said what had been described sounded like a formal event, which would require an even permit by the city. He said, specifically, the professional photographers should be treated like any other business owner seeking to make money on county or city property.
Councilwoman Hawnethia Williams suggested reaching out to the Newton County School System to voice concerns.
“The crowd was huge, and I saw that myself,” she said. “I did wonder about it. We’re going to have to find a way to have a meeting of the minds with the school system. If not, it’s going to look like we’re picking on one school. It’s going to have to be fair, just and equitable. And we need to look at that as soon as possible.”
Covington Mayor Ronnie Johnston said he also witnessed the traffic jam firsthand and suggested working with Covington Main Street to obtain feedback from other business owners.
“I’m sure there are a lot of people who were affected, maybe some positively,” he said. “But come up with a potential plan. This is not about picking or choosing schools. Actually, I’d like to be able to figure out a way to allow them to do this, but to do it in a process that does not endanger our safety, that does not put people at risk, and those types of things. I implore Main Street to get with the store owners and come up with a proposal.”
He said Saturday’s situation was unacceptable and dangerous for the city.
City Manager Leigh Anne Knight suggested reaching out to both Main Street and NCSS to coordinate a calendar of events to be better prepared in the future. She suggested using Saturday as a learning experience to better move forward.
“If there were photographers who had backdrops and professional cameras, it does appear that it was a planned event,” Knight said. “But everybody may not be having that. We have to really think about what we want to accomplish. We want those kids to come to the square, and we want them to use it. It may just not be an option for paid photography to be there, because every school doesn’t have that, so you can’t pick and choose that point. And I don’t know if that’s the school or that’s parents.”