Chamber and government officials have a list of retail businesses they think they can attract now and a wish list of businesses they want to see come to Newton County in the future, and they’ve hired a former executive from a global industry to be their retail pitchman.
Dave Bernd, a 33-year employee of Kimberly-Clark — which produces Kleenex and Huggies diapers, among other products —was hired recently to fill the newly created position of Director of Commercial Development for the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce.
While officials are still determining Bernd’s specific objectives, his chief goal is to recruit more retail businesses, including restaurants and shops of all kinds.
The goal will require several steps, including learning about his new home (he moved here Oct. 1), studying and effectively wielding new spending and demographic data being produced to sell prospective businesses on the county, and building relationships with commercial developers and others.
One of the reasons Bernd is ready to sell Newton County is that he’s been sold on it himself.
Growing up in an Air Force family and then relocating several times for career advancements, Bernd has lived in more than a dozen communities. However, he said Newton County has the most friendly and hospitable people he’s ever met.
Bernd and his wife, Sue, had decided to move back to the area to be closer to his daughter, Katie Norman, who teaches at Livingston Elementary. They decided to put a 100-mile radius around Katie’s home in Newton County and choose a place to live after Bernd retired from Kimberly-Clark. Having already previously lived in Alpharetta for years — during the boom following the Olympics — Bernd was somewhat familiar with the area.
He also knew about its traffic. When Bernd was first in Alpharetta, there were only two stoplights between his home there and his workplace, about 6 miles south from city center to city center. When he left years later, there were 28 stoplights on his daily commute.
The Bernds considered Atlanta, Athens, Peachtree City and other locales, but ultimately decided on Newton County. The square and its events and the local trail system were major factors, as was the bright future he sees for the county.
"We have something bottled in the water here I haven’t seen in 15 other places. There’s a relationship between the city and county that I haven’t seen in any other part of the world (I’ve been). There’s something special going on that has to be captured," Bernd said. "I hope people realize that. It’s a benefit for people like myself to come and look in from the outside, but there’s also a benefit for people who were born here to keep the culture moving forward."
As a high-ranking corporate executive — including stints as a research director, plant manager and director of manufacturing for Kimberly-Clark — Bernd said he had high-paying offers from companies in New York and Vermont, but he didn’t want to be away from his family for weeks at a time.
After connecting with chamber President Hunter Hall, Bernd saw a great opportunity to put down roots for the first time in his life.
"It’s important to be able to go home and have lunch with my family during the day," Bernd said. "I need to give back to the community and put roots down. The chamber and city have given me the ability to do something I love without all the human resources stuff that comes with it."
One thing Bernd will tackle is changing some of the perceptions of corporate relocation real estate agents who are moving Baxter International employees to the region. As part of his early retirement package, Kimberly-Clark paid for Bernd’s relocation, and Bernd said the agent he worked with wasn’t sold on Newton County.
One issue for the relocation agent was the local public school system, but Bernd said he’s been blown away by the county’s options, including the Newton County Theme School at Ficquett and the Newton College and Career Academy. His daughter teaches at Livingston Elementary, and Bernd was impressed with that school as well.
"I want my granddaughter to go through the public school system. I’m a product of public schools," said Bernd.
One of the other issues is the lack of retail shopping, but Bernd is in charge of changing the local scene, so he’s a little different than most people relocating.
What’s the goal?
The county’s new retail study is still being created by The Center for Community Preservation and Planning, the group that has facilitated the creation of the 2050 Plan and collects and studies a wealth of data. Until that study is ready, officials won’t know exactly where they stand, so no specific goals have yet been set, Hall said. The study is expected to be completed by the end of the year.
The broad goals are to increase the amount of sales tax money collected locally, first by attracting Newton County residents to shop locally and then by actually reversing the flow of shoppers so that residents of other counties come to shop in Newton County.
Based on a 2008 study, Newton County residents have the potential to spend about $1.4 billion annually in retail spending, but about $750 million of that potential spending takes places outside Newton County, namely in neighboring Rockdale County.
"The (updated) study will tell us what our opportunities are, and we’ll target those," Hall said.
Bernd’s first opportunity to sell Newton County will be at the Southeast Retail Connection conference, Jan. 16 in Atlanta. However, even if retailers say they won’t locate here, Bernd will push to understand why and what the county needs to do.
"Is it the economic situation, demographics, car counts, rooftop counts? We can’t turn things around overnight, but if we can understand the true root causes, then we can create a plan to get rid of those problems so we don’t lose out on Cabela’s, Target, Bass Pro Shop, Old Navy or any others in the future," he said.
Bernd said one of the key goals is to understand the demographics in different parts of the county and in downtown Covington so that he can craft his sales pitch accordingly. Bernd said some people he’s spoken to are worried he’ll focus on attracting major retailers to the benefit of major commercial corridors, but to the detriment of the square. However, Bernd bought a house in East Haven off East Street, just off the square.
"We can’t destroy the square; that’s why I moved here, too," Bernd said, noting the plan is to continue transforming the square into an entertainment-focused district anchored by restaurants and boutiques.
Of the 150 or so businesses on the chamber’s wish list, 60-70 percent of them are suited for the I-20 corridor, but the other 30-40 percent would be better located downtown, Bernd said.
Hall said the new retail study will be used to help all the operations at the chamber — economic development, tourism, Main Street Covington and the traditional chamber — develop a common strategy to build a more robust business base.
Some ancillary goals for Bernd include starting up a business incubator program to aid local entrepreneurs and reviving the Downtown Development Authority, which is an important organization in many communities for its ability to help local businesses obtain low-interest funding through the state.
Bernd can be reached by calling the chamber at 770-786-7510 or by emailing email@example.com.