Nicole Tilston stood patiently watching the activity in the parking lot of Sharp Learning Center Tuesday morning. Clutching her autograph book and permanent marker close to her chest, she stared in awe from across the street as the actors entered and exited trailers of the makeshift production headquarters for "The Vampire Diaries."
When star Paul Wesley walked briskly by and gave a courteous wave signaling he was too busy to stop and chat, it really didn't faze the 7-year-old from Texas. She had already talked to her favorite actor on the show, Ian Somerhalder.
Thus is the life of a "Vampire Diaries" fan. They come from all around to be a part of the phenomenon. They don't actually get to be in the show, but they get to see where it's filmed. And for them, that's enough.
But what people like Kelly Tilston, who traveled half way across the country with her daughter and met up with Jennifer Bagwell, a friend from Las Vegas, also do while in town is spend money.
"With the tour and hotel and eating out, I'd say I will have spent about $600," said Kelly. "My daughter is taking acting classes back in Texas and it was something she was excited about too. We've been here since Friday and have had a lot of fun."
From the Mystic Grill on the square to the Lockwood Mansion on East Street, Covington has become destination number one for fans of the show.
The $600 Kelly said she spent is just an example of how "The Vampire Diaries" has boosted tourism in Covington and become a major source of revenue in Newton County.
Tourists and visitors to Newton County spent an estimated $90.96 million during 2010.
The numbers come from a report generated by Steve Morse, economist and director of the University of Tennessee's Tourism Institute, who uses a statistical model to determine yearly tourism spending. The model assumes 100 percent of hotel revenues come from tourists and 20 percent of restaurant sales come from visitors.
Tourist spending increased by more than $10 million from 2009, according to Morse, and it's likely to take an even bigger jump in 2011.
The number of visitors increased from around 13,000 in 2010 to more then 19,000 in 2011, according to Ron Carter, assistant director of tourism for the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce.
Morse said previously that preliminary state tourism numbers aren't released until the fall of the next year, so he won't be able to calculate 2011 numbers until late 2012.
The nearly $91 million in tourist spending is estimated to create 948 jobs and $17.67 million in worker income, in addition to $2.78 million local county tax revenue and $3.51 million state tax revenue. Morse estimated that the average household pays $168 less in local and state taxes because of tourism.
"We are doing everything in our power to facilitate filming. I know the inconvenience issues, but the net return on tax dollar and job creation is huge," Hall told the Covington City Council March 5. "(Tourism) is an existing industry. It is like a General Mills. It is like an SKC or a C.R. Bard. They generate income and use very little services."
Carter said Tourism Director Clara Deemer said tourism numbers continue to exceed expectations primarily because of "Vampire Diaries" decision to use Covington as a main filming spot for the show's fictional town Mystic Falls, Va.
"More than 19,000 tourists came to Covington in 2011, representing 46 states and 28 countries - motivated by filming location tours of "The Vampire Diaries." A large number of these guests are staying in our hotels, eating in our restaurants and shopping locally in Covington.
Tourism is funded solely by hotel/motel tax, no city or county dollars are expended for the program," Carter and Deemer said in a joint email statement.
The city of Covington collected $378,351 in hotel/motel tax revenue during fiscal year 2011, up from $223,192 in fiscal year 2010, according to Accounting Manager Denise Stiles.
Among Covington's international guests is Janine Neuendorf, a 29-year-old fan from Germany who visited Covington for several days in August 2011. She said she's too old to be a hysteric fan, but she still loves the show.
"I like Vampire Diaries because it's not the usual Vampire Story. It's not only like a teen show; it doesn't attract only young people. The actors perform very well and it's a fascinating story," Neuendorf said in a Tuesday e-mail.
While the show isn't as popular overseas, Neuendorf said, it still has a large, and seemingly dedicated, fan base. Neuendorf traveled 9,000 miles round trip to visit Georgia and plans to visit again this fall.
"I came because I have to take the history of the Civil War in the United States, the beautiful old houses (I love the antebellum architecture) and also the filming set of my favorite series which interested and fascinated me. It was a wonderful week in Covington," she said.
"I love this easy little town. The people are warm and I felt very comfortable. The city has easy charm. I wish I could live in such a town like Covington. Not to forget - I love Scoops. Best ice cream ever."
As for Nicole, she flew back to Texas Tuesday and will spend the rest of her spring break with a smile on her face. She'll have Somerhalder's autograph and the rare experience to share with all her friends. She'll watch the show with Kelly diligently until August when the two vowed to return to do it all over again.
"My daughter got me hooked on it and bought me season one on DVD. Every since then, we haven't missed a show and we've wanted to come," Kelly said. "The people here were very nice. The actors, especially Ian, are very personable and having a small town like this where people are so open and welcome us in is neat. We've already talked about coming back."