Consultant Sharlene Cannon said downtown Covington has a good infrastructure of buildings and businesses, but its sidewalks and storefronts need to be spruced up – a goal that could be accomplished with a beefed- up Main Street Covington program.
Cannon told the Covington City Council she believes the plan to move the Main Street program under the control of the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce "will be a perfect marriage," but she said Main Street needs another, at least part-time employee, and a revised focus on improving downtown businesses.
Cannon was hired by the chamber to study whether the plan – championed by Mayor Ronnie Johnston – to move Main Street from the city’s control to the chamber would work, and she has repeatedly touted the potential benefits, including the synergy that could be created between Main Street and the chamber’s existing programs, including traditional business development, tourism and economic development.
"So many times the chamber is the first stop for a new person coming into town, so this is another way for them to shuttle right into the Main Street office," Cannon said.
She said Main Street and tourism efforts are both in place to promote the community and should be able to plan jointly and combine resources and money. Similarly, both the chamber and Main Street help prospective businesses develop business plans and get started, and they can combine "resources and brain power."
Even the chamber’s newly retail recruiter, Dave Bernd, will be an asset, she said, because he’s recruiting for the entire county and will be able to direct businesses to either downtown or a major commercial corridor, based on their models.
The chamber’s bookkeeper would also take on the responsibility for Main Street, which would free up the director to focus on programming, Cannon said.
She had high praise for chamber President Hunter Hall, saying he’s built a great organizational structure and team and said a new Main Street director should have no problem becoming part of the team.
Room for improvement
The most glaring need, according to Cannon, is a second employee for the Main Street program.
"I’m here to tell you, as a 20-year Main Street veteran, one person cannot do that job. It’s huge. It’s nine different things, 24 hours a day," Cannon said.
She suggested an administrative office assistant be hired to answer the phone and man the front desk to guide visitors, as well as handle much of the work attached to Main Street’s four committees.
"If you’re going to build this program to the kind of program it really needs to be so you can see marked difference in your downtown, it’s more than a one-person job," Cannon told the council.
The other main need, Cannon said, is an increased emphasis on improving the aesthetics of downtown. She said downtown Covington sees a lot of foot traffic because of TV and movie filming, but that masks some deficiencies.
"Ask yourselves, is downtown really the ‘Hollywood of the South?’ Is the lady dressed up and ready to go to the ball? No. It needs a little cleaning up. It needs some TLC (tender loving care). There’s buildings that need to be fixed up. We don’t need vacancies; we need viable businesses inside. We need places for all these people to come and go from door-to-door and walk around that square and spend their money.
"Those are the emphases that have to be placed on the program now. It’s been largely an events program. I know they’ve done other things throughout the years, but you cannot spend all your time and all your money on events. You have to focus on what you want your town to be," she said.
Cannon said one improvement would be devoting more money to improving facades. Main Street Covington currently offers up to $750 façade grants, but Cannon said many cities now offer more than that.
She also said some vacant buildings need to be fixed up now to better attract future businesses.
Cannon said she realizes some of her suggestions require more money, but she said the city has to make sure it steps up to the plate and gives the chamber the tools it needs to get the job done.
Mayor Johnston said he wasn’t necessarily debating her conclusion that more money needs to be spent, but he said part of the idea of bringing Main Street under the chamber was to pool resources and get better results. Cannon said that is the idea, but she said the program simply needs a second employee, at least a part-time one if a full-time position can’t be afforded.
Johnston also wanted to know where the program needs to go, and Cannon said that vision would come from a ‘visioning session,’ where all downtown stakeholders get together and identify priorities and set goals. She said part of that process should be a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) analysis.
There was some back and forth about what specifically needed to happen for the downtown to be ready to really take off, and Cannon said she had a two-page list of suggestions, including fixing shabby-looking areas of buildings, improving storefronts to catch eyes, and other improvements. However, Hall said the chamber didn’t want to put that list out in a public setting to avoid airing "that laundry," but said the information is available to officials.
Cannon said part of the visioning process would be getting "down to brass tacks" about which people will do what work to bring about the needed improvements.
Besides that, one of the next steps will be putting out the revised job description for the next Main Street director.