Covington Mayor Ronnie Johnston has a big vision for Covington. He wants his city’s downtown to be more popular than nearby Madison’s, its Christmas displays to shine as brightly as Callaway Gardens,’ its businesses to thrive, and its residents to be employed and entertained.
Few have questioned Johnston’s energy and drive. He’s always willing to share his vision for a bigger and better Covington, as he did during Friday’s hour-long town hall meeting about the future of Main Street Covington, the group responsible for marketing and developing downtown.
Johnston frequently expresses frustration at the pace of progress in government, and he wants to move on objectives at the speed of private business, but his plan to move Main Street out from under the city and contract for its operation with the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce has moved too quickly for some.
Main Street’s Board of Directors didn’t appreciate being left out of the loop, and other downtown stakeholders were confused about the motivations and process of the proposed move. And while Johnston isn’t slowing down, he did hold the town hall to try to bring everyone up to speed.
He said his interest in Main Street stems from when he first took office in January 2012 and spoke to downtown business owners and residents, some of whom felt disconnected from the Main Street program.
Terminating the current operating agreement for Main Street and moving the program under the chamber will solve multiple problems, Johnston said, including:
• Giving the new director only one boss, the chamber Board of Directors
• Creating synergy between Main Street and the chamber’s existing tourism and economic development operations (these three areas will receive more than $700,000 in public funding in fiscal year 2014).
“Pulling those resources together to do a more effective job… That doesn’t mean I think we were doing a bad job before. This is all about trying to take a program and take it to another level of performance, of marketing, of promotions and of economic development,” Johnston said Friday.
Johnston focused much of his talk on promoting Covington’s biggest events, like the July Fourth fireworks show on the square, and a new idea to cover the square and surrounding blocks in Christmas lights. He wants to see those events promoted in Atlanta and across the state, and up to 1,000 cars a day driving through town during the holidays. He also talked about trying to do a New Year’s Eve bash this year.
“We want to say to everybody, ‘Don’t go pay (sic) to Callaway or go to Lanier to take your family. You can drive through the most charming historical town in the state of Georgia [for free] and be amazed by the lights,” Johnston.
While some have accused the mayor of trying to tear down the Main Street program, he said that talk is off-base. He’s getting ready to become a downtown business owner himself, he said, once the Mystic Grill restaurant opens on the square — Johnston and his wife are partnering to create it with John and Angi Beszborn — in late summer or early fall.
“Why in the heck would I do that? I’m getting ready to have a vested interest in the place. If anything, I’m trying to just take it to the next level,” he said.
Johnston tried to reassure the three Main Street Covington board members in attendance Friday that Main Street would stay intact as a separate program and would simply move under the chamber. The program’s goals and objectives would be the same as they’ve always been, he said. Main Street is a national organization that is tasked with beautifying and promoting downtowns, protecting historic elements and fostering business development.
“I do believe with every ounce of my heart and soul the full intention of what we’re trying to do is put ourselves in this city and county in a better position to be successful. That means every business, every person, every citizen. This is about jobs to me, revenues for the city. It’s about home values going up. All those things I do believe are interconnected,” Johnston said.
“We’ve got Baxter up there. Everybody loves to talk about it, but guess what? You want me to be real? Not a lot of people (with Baxter) are moving into Newton County. If you (aren’t) real, you’re never going to figure out how to make a change. So, yeah, we’re trying to do things.”
When asked, Johnston also shed some light on the short-term future of the Main Street program, saying he hopes the city or chamber will hire a consultant as the next Main Street director to help with the program’s reorganization. The consultant would basically lay the groundwork for his or her replacement by working with the chamber to create a job description for a permanent director.
“I believe it’s in everybody’s best interest to bring in somebody from the outside who has the expertise to help us work through that process,” Johnston said.
A woman with the Southern Heartland Art Gallery asked about parking concerns, saying some days her art students have to park two blocks away and carry their art supplies to the studio.
Johnston said the city has looked at the issue, including possibly buying land for a parking garage somewhere. However, he said that’s really a future issue, as the square too often has plenty of empty spots.
“I can’t wait to have the parking problem,” he said.
John Bezsborn, who owns Bullritos near the Covington Walmart, asked why business owners and employees couldn’t use the Elm Street parking garage across from the Newton County Administration Building and leave the square parking spaces open for patrons.
Johnston said he wants all of the downtown stakeholders to be involved in those kinds of decisions, and hopes a reorganized Main Street program can bring them all together.
Square Perk owner Andrea Smith asked whether a business owner would have to be a dues-paying member of the chamber in order to join Main Street.
Johnston said he didn’t know that answer but did know the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, which oversees Main Street programs in Georgia, had no problem with a Main Street program being under a chamber of commerce.
Another woman in the audience asked if anyone would want to take the job of Main Street director given that the chamber could operate on a renewing one-year contract to run Main Street. Johnston said he didn’t know how it would work out exactly, because the chamber would hire the new director, but he acknowledged the job would be an intense one. He doesn’t expect the next director to stay for 13 straight years, unless he or she does an amazing job.
Bezsborn said he believes marketing for the square has lagged, as recent events haven’t been well-promoted, including Friday night’s concert, while Mike Torino with Amici Italian Café said he didn’t feel Main Street had been effective.
“We’ve certainly had our differences with the way the MS organization (operated)… There is a sensing with our staff that Main Street has not been performing at all. We’re very interested in making sure it get back on track,” Torino said, adding he felt the program in Madison, where he lives, is more effective.
Johnston said he had no issue stealing ideas from successful cities like Madison and he asked for help and leadership from all in attendance.