Newton County owns the Covington square and will have oversight, but the city of Covington will maintain the property and the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce will handle event scheduling for the square, under a new series of agreements approved last week.
The Newton County Board of Commissioners approved two agreements Tuesday, one with Covington regarding maintenance of the square and one with the chamber regarding event permits and coordination.
The chamber is in the process of folding the Main Street Covington program — which has handled downtown event permits for years — under its roof and will assume the role of handling event permits.
The new agreement between the county and chamber requires:
• The chamber to create and update a paper calendar or an electronic calendar of all permitted events and provide it to the county (Chairman Keith Ellis said both an electronic and paper calendar will be kept);
• A permit for any person or organization seeking to use the square for an event, except for the
county and presumably the chamber (the permits will be similar, or the same, as the ones currently used);
• The chamber to notify Chairman Ellis or his administrative assistant in writing of any event planned for the square; the chairman can notify the chamber of an objection to any event, based on either the event violating the rules and regulations for events or because of a scheduling conflict. (Ellis said this was an important addition for the county to keep them in the loop.)
One addition is the possible use of the Historic Courthouse and its restrooms for public events. The cost of opening the facility is $80 an hour for two uniformed guards, while a restroom cleaning fee of $40 per hour of the event will also be charged; both charges have a three-hour minimum.
While the county charges to use its buildings, and there is a small permit fee to use the square for an event, Commissioner John Douglas asked why the county doesn’t charge more money to rent out the square, particularly in the case of filming crews. He said the county should be compensated for the use of public property.
"The square belongs to the taxpayers; we can’t give it away for no charge," Douglas said.
Commissioner Nancy Schulz, who was the designated commissioner who worked on the agreements, said any group that uses the square is required to repair any damage done during its use. She also said "The Vampire Diaries" has often given in-kind donations to the city and county, including a replica float of the Historic Courthouse, used during a parade on the TV show, and Christmas decorations, also used during filming previously.
During public comments prior to the agreement, Sam M. Hay III asked commissioners to table the agreements to get more citizen feedback. He said he has heard citizen complaints for years that magnolia trees are being damaged by foot traffic on the square.
According to multiple environmental websites, soil compaction can kill trees; however, no comment was made Tuesday about whether the magnolias on the square had been adversely affected by events.
Schulz said she believes the county is working to protect the square.
Commissioner Levie Maddox said he would like to see a fee structure put in place for using the square, even if it’s a nominal fee to help pay for mulch, flowers and other things to enhance the square.
City to maintain
While the Board of Commissioners discussed costs, the second agreement the board approved actually calls for the city of Covington to handle all maintenance.
The city will handle and pay for landscaping, seasonal planting, trash removal and other maintenance of the square, according to the agreement.
However, the city is only allowed to make permanent changes to the square if it gets approval from the county.
Maddox said he appreciated the city taking the lead on maintaining the downtown area, noting the role the square can play in attracting businesses to the area.
Commissioner Lanier Sims has hosted numerous car shows downtown and he said the city has always done a great job of keeping the square clear of trash and said city employees have always been helpful in preparing for events.
“I’m very comfortable they will do a great job,” Sims said.
Both agreements will terminate June 30, 2014 – at the end of the county’s fiscal year – and serve as a trial run, county attorney Jenny Carter said. The county will revisit both next June.