COVINGTON, Ga. - Billy Fortson moved to Newton County to go to Oxford college in 1960 and has been working at the Ginn Motor Company since 1969. As a long-time community member and property owner, he has experienced a variety of change in the area. However, Fortson does not shy away from change. He sees the value in the Highway 278 Community Improvement District and has been a believer in this project since before it even had a name. He has been an essential member of the CID board since it was created.
Jim Weadick, former hospital CEO, started this project 15 or so years ago. He met with a consultant in order to learn of any improvements he could make for the hospital.
“Essentially the consultant said ‘You have a very nice hospital, but this corridor you have to get to the hospital is not the nicest,’” Fotson said.
This got the idea floating for Weadick and since Fortson was on the hospital board, he immediately helped begin promotion.
“We never got a whole lot of traction until the CID was founded and enough people finally got on board that people realized the importance of doing something to change the look for the business corridor,” Fotson said.
This was only the beginning of their long journey.
As a property owner himself, Fortson understands that some property owners may only see it as a tax increase for them.
“I don’t think a lot of people realize the value of retail in our community because of the money you collect for sales tax,” he said.
In his business, he recognizes the competition for business with Salem Road. He says that with the talk of Covington Town Center, the property owners and merchants on Highway 278 should be concerned with the increase in competition.
“[Highway 278] loses 50 percent of the retail business because they go elsewhere in the county.”
Someday there will be a retail shopping center in Covington and retailers will want to be in an attractive location which brings business. The Highway 278 property owners have to take a step forward instead of playing it safe and remaining stagnant.
“About half of the people in the community are going out of the county anyway, so we need to do something to keep that trend from continuing, and then we need to do something to bring them back,” he said.
One way to bring back consumers, in Fortson’s opinion, is by making Highway 278 a more attractive area.
“People are attracted to attractive areas and at this moment Highway 278 is not an attractive area,” he said.
Fortson says with LongHorn, Applebee’s, and Racetrack, you can see a preview of the improvements that could be achieved with some strategic planning. An attractive area brings in more business which results in more sales tax revenue that comes in which helps the different people who are living off of sales tax revenue. An example of this from our community is the Covington square. Before the reinvigoration of the square with new businesses, if someone drove through it would seem like a ghost town. Now you can see the improvement because of the new stores that are opening as well as the many consumers who keep the square busy. This is what he foresees happening with the Highway 278 CID. It might take a few years, but he believes in this project and that it will reach a point where Highway 278 is something the community will be proud of.
The CID is not only focused on bringing in new businesses, but also retaining the businesses. Part of the CID is to improve the area so we can keep the successful businesses that we have. If we maintain the same look and feel of the current CID, then those businesses will not be keeping up with the competition and might make the decision to leave. However, the businesses have to be bringing in income or they will not have the funds to make personal improvements to their buildings.
The way in which the CID helps with this is by improving the corridor itself. The result will be a domino effect. The improvement of the corridor results in more consumers choosing to shop on Highway 278 which brings in more income. More income would allow the property owners to create their own improvements to make their properties look better and perform better as well.
The large goals the CID have will take many years to be accomplished.
“One of the first things to come up in the planning meeting is people asking ‘What would be the first thing we want to do on 278?’” he said.
In Fortson’s opinion, there are two things that could be improved which would have a dramatic effect on the look and feel of Highway 278. The first thing would be getting rid of all the utility lines.
“A lot of them are on old telephone poles that are bending and sticking out in places.”
The other thing would be to put up adequate lighting since “at night, particularly in the winter time, it can be very dark up and down 278.”
If you actually take time as you drive along Highway 278, anyone can see there are aspects of the corridor that could be improved.
“The businesses are the backbone of the community,” he said.
Fortson is a business owner himself and has seen firsthand the effect of businesses on different pockets of the community. For example, about 15 years ago the square started declining as a result of losing businesses. “Once you started bringing people back to the square with restaurants and small shops, you see it’s flourishing. It’s pretty basic.” You have to have businesses that people will want to go to in order to create a thriving economy for the community.
The biggest challenge the Highway 278 CID has faced in this infancy is funding, “getting in the position where we can apply for grants and go after some big monies that will help us with these projects.”
The CID wants this corridor to look and perform the best it possibly can. However, in order to obtain the large funds such as federal grants, “we’ve got to have some money to make some money.” The community plays a big role in the Highway 278 CID as well. The citizens themselves can influence the organizations whom the CID is asking for funds.
The Highway 278 CID is currently utilizing social media to advertise their goals to the community in a cheap and effective way. Fortson is aware of, from his business, the shift from traditional advertising and the rise of social media.
“This is a good way to get to the people, young folks and old folks,” he said. “The demographics of Covington has changed. A lot of these people coming here are young folks and Facebook is a medium to reach them.”
Facebook is such a large market, which the Highway 278 CID is now tapping into. Fortson would like the community to know that the Highway 278 CID “is a very important project and is something that is needed if you want to have a vibrant business community in Covington.”
If you do not want a vibrant business community in Covington then you must accept that more and more people will be going out of town to do their shopping, eating, and eventually living. We have the opportunity to expand the businesses and this corridor. It is important for us to take this opportunity while we have the chance.
If you have any questions about the CID contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information go to our website http://278cid.com Master Plan- http://www.thomasandhutton.com/278cid/cid-master-plan.html