As a friend and I settled outdoors for a glass of wine downtown, my adorable little dog rested on my lap. A passerby stopped to say, “Oh, how cute!” Around his neck hung several cameras, and we learned he was in town from Brunswick with a partner to shoot video and stills for the Chamber of Commerce. He said he’d been in numerous towns around the state on similar business, but this was his first time in Covington. He was simply captivated and remarked that our little town, unlike most, he emphasized, has “soul.”
I don’t disagree. In remarks recently, Mayor Steve Horton used an evocative phrase to describe Covington as “the corner of yesterday and tomorrow.” And thousands upon thousands of tourists from around the world testify annually to the allure of Covington: its picturesque Square, extensive trails, leafy streets, an established film and television history, attractive homes, popular restaurant options, charming shops and old-fashioned Southern hospitality.
In those same remarks, Horton recounted the hand wringing of 20 years ago — when he was city manager — as officials groped for ways to attract tourists. Today’s film and television tourism turned out to be the answer and now is the fastest growing sector of our economy. (Our Chamber wisely trademarked the phrase “Hollywood of the South” some years ago.) The mayor also reported that in 2019, pre-COVID, these tourists spent an estimated $153 million locally resulting in $4.63 million in tax revenue. That’s not chicken feed.
Hotels built not long ago are at capacity, and new ones are going up. A recent development is the wild proliferation of private homes being converted into short term rental AirBnB’s going for hundreds of dollars a night. The city council, I am told, is looking into whether and how to regulate them while residents wonder if one or more will change the nature of their comfortable neighborhoods.
No one can dispute the financial benefits of tourism on our local economy and the many small businesses and restaurants that are thriving as a result. Many of the tourists — and many of them whole families - who wander our streets spending several days here begin to envision themselves moving here. In my own neighborhood, a couple relocated here several years ago because the wife liked the look of Covington on the TV screen.
There is a warning in the shadows, however. Covington has a small geographic footprint, and tourists, not to mention its citizens, find themselves jockeying for space on city streets and corners. Just forget parking downtown which, some say, ought to be turned into pedestrian-only. Gawkers often halt traffic mid-block to pop out of cars and snap photos. Can we, a small town, continue to safely absorb an increasing number of visitors, their cars, tourist buses and rented golf carts? Is there a point at which quality of life, particularly for residents, begins to be impacted not in a positive way?
Right now, we are both a popular and welcoming town, but I suggest that city planners acknowledge at some point that unbridled tourism could have a downside. How can that be averted? We may be a few years away from reaching that point, but the idea shouldn’t be dismissed as illogical. For now, we are the envy of dozens of towns and cities across the state, and we should work to protect that status.