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Pushing for more retail
City, chamber consider hiring retail recruiter
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Data drives retail.

Population, per-capita income and traffic patterns determine where restaurants and retail stores locate, so Hunter Hall, president of the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce, hopes to collect as much of that data as possible to target retailers that would fit in Newton County’s market.

The plan is an offshoot of the discussion about moving the Main Street Covington program — which handles downtown marketing, event planning and business recruitment and retention — from under the city of Covington to the chamber.

Covington Mayor Ronnie Johnston originally put forth the idea of a small business and retail recruiter. He said previously the city currently spends $93,000 a year on economic development with the Electric Cities of Georgia, a group that provides varied services to cities that sell electricity.

The city has been exploring alternative ways to use that money, Johnston said.

Hall said conducting an in-depth retail data study and hiring a retail recruiter need to be connected to moving the Main Street program under the chamber, so the chamber could give new businesses the best chance to succeed through specific data.

The recruiter would work for the whole county, but Hall said the downtown business district has a very different customer base and focus from businesses on U.S. Highway 278 and other major thoroughfares. By studying the data for each sub-market within Newton County, a targeted plan could be created.

The city and chamber have no formal agreement but are pursuing the retail recruitment plan.

The city has already passed an incentive package for small businesses, and the Industrial Development Authority has discussed whether it should offer retail incentives, but for large retail companies, Hall said, market demographics are by far the most important factor.

The plan would be to take a previous retail study done as part of the county’s 2050 Plan, which looked at where the county was losing money from a lack of businesses, and combine that with a much more in-depth study.

A consultant would be hired to study data such as buyer demographics and preferences, discretionary income, traffic patterns and many other aspects for each area of the county. Hall said there’s data that can tell what products and services local residents tend to spend their money on.

The county would use the data to target sectors and businesses that are clearly needed via a recruiter who would be hired to turn that study into results.

For example, many Covington and east Newton County residents want a Publix to locate in the city, but Covington is saturated with grocery stores, including Aldi, Food Depot, two Ingles, Kroger and Walmart.

“From a pure numbers sense, it doesn’t make sense,” Hall said.

On the other hand, the latest data shows there is a shortage of electrical and appliance stores in the city, which has actually led to an increase in people looking to open such companies.

The chamber has tried to recruit specific retailers for years, but sending packets of information to desired restaurants, sports merchandise stores and big-box retailers hasn’t yielded much success, Hall said.

“We tried to get their attention. We had some conversations, but not much,” Hall said. “We know just shooting from the hip is not the way to go. We need to be very analytical and professional.”

However, because of the importance of per-capita income, the chamber will continue to focus on its core mission of industrial recruitment in order to increase higher-paying jobs to improve the county’s demographics.

While intangibles generally don’t matter in retail recruitment, one intangible that may help the county is its 2050 Plan. Hall said he’s met with four retailers and every time he talked about the 2050 Plan — which basically tries to lay out the future organization of the county — retail executives have been very attracted to it.

The data collected in any study would help both big and small businesses. For instance, the chamber would give the data away for free to interested business owners, who could then use it to help them get bank loans.

“We would use the data to go recruit on a more mom and pop local level,’’ Hall said. “Here’s what the data is showing, so let’s put the word out that we’re looking for an entrepreneur or small business owner (in this area).”