COVINGTON — The Covington City Council voted Monday night to issue a 90-day notice of its plan to cancel the city’s contract with the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce for the Main Street program and move Main Street back under the city’s umbrella. Main Street had previously been with the city, but was moved to the Chamber in 2014.
Main Street programs are aimed to revitalize downtowns and commercial districts through preservation-based economic development and community revitalization.
Concerned with the number of businesses closing on the Square and after fielding complaints from other business owners about their problems with Main Street, council members have been talking about possibly moving it back under the city, and Monday night the decision was made to do so.
Interim Chamber President Debbie Harper said Main Street is a 501c6 non-profit and that the city will have to create its own non-profit in order for Main Street to continue.
City Attorney Frank Turner Jr. agreed and said Main Street is basically a group of people and businesses who profit from the efforts of a Main Street program. He said it could be set up in weeks or could take months as the Georgia Department of Community Affairs must approve it.
Harper asked that the council table any decision for further discussions with the Chamber and Main Street boards.
“I feel like a lot of decisions have been made from you listening to one side and without data from us,” she told the council. She added that the DCA doesn’t like Main Street being moved around and has said it will remain accredited only as long as it remains with the Chamber.
Harper said Main Street increased events in 2019 from 81 to 90, and visitors to those events increased from 60,082 to 74,705. The total spent downtown in 2019 was $508,425, she said, significantly higher than it was when Main Street came over from the city. Harper added that the Main Street program does a lot more than just events.
She said currently there isn’t a lot of collaboration between the merchants and that Main Street has set up its first merchants work session on Feb. 24. She added that the primary complaint among the merchants has been the city’s zoning ordinance needing to be updated.
Councilman Kenneth Morgan said that some merchants feel they are not being included in the business community and something needs to be done to bridge the diversity gap.
Councilwoman Freeta Baggett said she has lived and worked on the Square for 18 years and knows you can’t make merchants be friends or participate, adding that Main Street is getting a “bad rap” on that.
Councilwoman Hawnethia Williams, who is the city’s representative on the Main Street board, said downtown was “a ghost town” not long ago, and that they have seen success in building the area back up, but that there are disconnects that need to be worked on.
Councilman Anthony Henderson noted that it seemed to him that the City Council never sees or hears from Main Street until it starts talking about moving the program. He said he felt Main Street is more reactive than proactive with the City Council.
Councilwoman Susie Keck said she is not against Main Street, but she is concerned about the results of the program. She said only 20% of the merchants attend Main Street meetings and that a change is needed in leadership.
City Manager Scott Andrews advised the council that the city current spends $350,000 a year on the Main Street program, and that the council has asked him to look at ways to trim the city’s entire budget for next year. He said the council needs to make a decision soon so staff will know what to do.
Keck then made a motion to issue a notice of termination of the city’s contract with the Chamber for Main Street. Henderson seconded the motion, and the vote was 5-1 in favor, with Williams dissenting.