The chamber’s goal over the next five to 10 years is to turn Newton County into a regional retail hub, not only capable of meeting the needs of Newton County residents, but also drawing residents from surrounding counties.
However, officials say they need the public’s help to identify needs and wants and potentially fill some of those needs by turning more existing residents into business owners.
Dave Bernd, who helped get the county’s retail recruitment strategy off the ground, held the first of what he hopes are several public meetings Thursday evening to get public feedback and brainstorm ideas and solutions.
Bernd reviewed the first phase of the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce’s recently completed retail study and laid out the vision for turning what is around a $500 million sales tax deficit – the latest numbers are expected to come in lower that that – into a $500 million sales tax surplus.
The goal is to use the data – which shows big sales gaps in auto parts and dealers, general merchandise/department stores, apparel and accessories, restaurants and electronics and appliances, among others – to target specific retailers for specific areas. The county will study the specific demographics and character of areas like downtown Covington, U.S. Highway 278, Almon and Salem roads and the other exits off the interstate.
Later phases in the study will delve into more specifics.
How to retain youth
One of the most common refrains among attendees was a need for entertainment, which isn’t specifically listed as one of the study’s retail areas.
Dick Schulz, who owns The Oaks Course, recalled a previous meeting where some young people shared why they were leaving Newton County when they grew up.
"They said there was nothing to do. I don’t know what nothing means…" Schulz said, saying the group needs to reach out to young people and see what their top priorities are, whether that’s a movie theater, bowling alley, walking trails or something else.
Denise Spires, who owns Spires Interiors on the square, said she had hoped her two sons would take over her store when they grew up, but they moved to the city seeking the activities of Buckhead and Cobb County.
Bernd said one of the benefits of bringing Serra Phillips on board as the county’s new retail recruiter was to tap into her perspective as a young person who stayed. Bernd was promoted to industrial recruiter for the county but will continue to work on and oversee the retail recruitment aspects along with Phillips.
"They could have bought a home three times the size here in Newton County and been in a gorgeous community, which is their hometown, but because of a lack of opportunities for entertainment for that group, they opted out," Spires said.
One area where the county is currently saturated, but where residents still desire new stores, is groceries, Bernd said. People are clamoring for another Publix or a Whole Foods, but the county is oversaturated with its current stock. Unless one leaves, another won’t come, Bernd said.
Resident Rick Henderson said it wouldn’t hurt to ask the existing grocery stores to rebrand themselves and improve their stores and selections. He didn’t mention a specific chain, but he said he’s been at a store in Milledgeville, and "they’ll have great stuff I can’t find here."
Finding local business owners
Theresa Los with FranChoice told the audience, which included a couple of residents who said they were interested in exploring opening their own business, about her service, which includes vetting candidates and trying to match them up with companies that have successful franchises.
Los helped Mark and Dr. Nicole Ross start their Right at Home home health care franchise and said she works with numerous franchises.
While no future meeting was scheduled, attendees did agree they’d like to meet again and break into smaller focus groups that would tackle specific areas.