COVINGTON, Ga. — The Newton County Board of Commissioners denied a request Tuesday night to allow alcoholic beverages to be allowed on the county-owned green space that’s part of the downtown Square, limiting open container alcoholic beverages to the sidewalk portion of the square which is owned by the City of Covington.
After several meetings of discussion, including a full presentation from Community Development Department director Ken Malcom which highlighted how similar 90-day trial periods have been “100% successful” in other counties of similar make up, the Board voted 4-1 in favor of denying it.
Some of the biggest pushback Tuesday night came from Newton County Sheriff Ezell Brown.
“I’ve received several calls from folks out in the community,” Brown said. “Faith based community members and many citizens are concerned about the county portion of the square, not so much of the sidewalks. I believed it was time to push a pause button on the county portion of the square and keep [alcohol] consumption on the sidewalk and allow the 90 days to be in place and let’s see how that’s going to work.
“We have a number of jurisdictional issues we’d need to work out, and I don’t know if that’s something attainable right now.”
Commissioner J.C. Henderson parroted the Sheriff’s concerns, particularly centering those of the county’s faith community.
“What I’m hearing from the faith-based community is they don’t want us participating in drinking,” Henderson said. “However, what I’ve addressed to them is to allow the 90-day trial period with the City of Covington and come back with the data, and maybe we could make another motion to approve it maybe on down the line.”
While Malcom and others like Chamber of Commerce president Debbie Harper and several local business owners have pointed to the success of other counties of similar make up executing a similar trial period, Commissioner Demond Mason discussed nuances in Newton County’s Square that he believes should cause the county to think differently than its neighbors.
“It’s definitely a very unique situation,” Mason said, referring to how the square’s green space is owned by the county while the sidewalks are owned by the City of Covington. “We do have a small Square in its proximity, and we do have a variety of individuals that visit our Square on a regular basis. We do have youth, seniors, families, so I think it would be great to kind of see how it works on the sidewalks and keep the [rest of the] Square as a safe zone for families.
“I’d definitely like to see how this 90-day period works being on the sidewalks, and then maybe, if we can get some data and good feedback from that, we can revisit that safe zone green space.”
The agenda item generated a good chunk feedback from younger professionals in the county who showed up to Tuesday night's Board meeting to sound off on the necessity of allowing the 90-day trial.
“I really want to implore all of you to focus on the facts and data that this 90-day trial period could give us,” said Kayla Dobbs during Tuesday night’s BOC meeting. Dobbs said she’s been a resident of Covington since 2018, and was optimistic in how the 90-day trial could inform the county on both possibilities for economic growth and ways to reduce risk.
“Instead of making decisions based on emotional and personal [feelings], make this decision based on data,” she said. “What we can actually count and what we can see on paper.”
Resident Dania Bernard echoed Dobbs’ sentiments.
“Have we considered there may be unleveraged wisdom to be mined from the qualitative data we’ll receive from the social experience of this measure,” Bernard said. “There are valuable insights on an emerging demographic of residents who are migrating to Covington, such as young professionals as myself. Understanding trends, interests and behaviors will provide key insights to stay relevant and meet the needs of a new generation of residents.”
In contrast to the Board of Commissioner’s vote to keep open containers of alcoholic beverages off of its part of the downtown Square, the Covington City Council unanimously voted to allow it during its Monday, April 17 meeting.
“All participants will be required to purchase their alcoholic beverages from a licensed downtown restaurant, and each drink will be placed in a city-designated clear cup,” Community Development Department director Ken Malcolm said in a written statement to the City Council.
As for supportive feedback from the County’s board, Commissioner Stan Edwards — the lone vote in favor of allowing open containers on the County-owned portion of the Square — said he appreciated the fact that a solid plan was in place to help mitigate risks that were already present.
“Two or three years ago, this came before the board with no plan whatsoever, and I voted no, although I knew the positive economic development I was saying no to,” Edwards said. “I’m saying I’m in favor of it for the safety of the square, and I’ll argue that any event on the green part of this square, if it were to be held tonight, you’d go across the street and find a number of coolers filled with [alcoholic] beverages today.
“With what Mr. Malcolm has proposed, those coolers would not be allowed which would make people have to go back to the stated establishments to purchase your next beverage, which would make it more difficult to overindulge in my opinion.”
The trial period was slated to start May 4 and end July 29 and would include Thursday, Fridays and Saturdays only from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.