Officials mull future development

COVINGTON -- County and city officials met with the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce Executive Board of Directors at The Center on Thursday night to discuss the future of economic development.

The City Council and Board of Commissioners are considering more than doubling the amount of money they give the Chamber annually for economic development.

Mayor Kim Carter proposed at Monday night's council meeting an increase from $54,000 to $120,000 from each government, or 122 percent.

If both the county and city agree to that proposal, the total annual contribution to the Chamber will increase from $108,000 to $240,000.

Commissioner Nancy Schulz said the current proposal would have the city and county funding 80 percent of the new Chamber president's salary, and she believes there should be a more equitable split so that private businesses have an equal investment.

However, Scott Willis, vice chair for economic development on the Chamber board, said currently the county and city only fund about 20 percent of the Chamber budget, and the rest is funded through membership dues. Willis said the business community is already pulling its weight and is looking for officials to contribute more.

In addition to considering increasing funding, a change in the Chamber's organizational structure is being considered.

Chamber Executive Board of Directors Chairman Joe Stier said following former president John Boothby's resignation in September, the board has been working to define what the future of the Chamber should look like, and has identified several parameters: To be effective at attracting quality economic development; to do that cost effectively through all economic and political cycles and in a cooperative way with the city and county; to leverage and utilize the experience and expertise of Chamber staff; and to have a clear reporting structure and clear expectations for the new president.

Under the proposal being considered, an economic development steering committee would be formed, consisting of the BOC chairman, the mayor, a member of the Industrial Development Authority and a member of Chamber Board of Directors. BOC Chairman Kathy Morgan said she would also like to see a Newton County appointed member of the Joint Development Authority on the committee.

The new Chamber president would still report to the board of directors, Stier said, with the steering committee designed to make sure there is adequate communication between county and city officials.

"There have been gaps in communication and cooperation. Some of it may have been personality related. It's hard to say what the reasons are," he said.

Mayor Kim Carter said in the past decisions were made at the Chamber level to pass on some opportunities without consulting "folks with skin in the game."

Chamber Board of Directors Past Chairman Troy Brooks said he sees the committee as an action committee that can immediately provide answers to the Chamber on the type of incentive package that can be promised to prospects.

County Commissioners Mort Ewing, Nancy Schulz and Tim Fleming all indicated they want a clear reporting structure where the new president would report to the Chamber board to keep the process from becoming too political.

"Politicians tend to push their personal agendas," Fleming said, adding that the regular changing of hands at the political wheels could increase instability at the Chamber.

Ewing asked for more information on what the proposed increase in funding would pay for, as well as a chart depicting the proposed organizational structure.

Whatever city and county officials decide, many agree that economic development efforts must be stepped up.

Currently, only 22 percent of the county's tax base comes from industrial and commercial taxpayers, said Morgan.

"That is just a step away from catastrophe. That puts all the burden on the homeowners," she said, adding that a more ideal scenario would be 60 percent residential and 40 percent industrial and commercial.

"If we want Newton County to just stay stable, we've got to improve our economic development. If we do nothing, we're going to fall further and further behind," she said.

Schulz said that the previous Chamber president spent a lot of time going to ribbon cuttings and meetings, "But what did we really do to strengthen the business community?" she said.

City Councilman John Howard suggested the BOC look at holding a public referendum to have liquor by the drink sales in the county as a way to attract restaurants and increase tax dollars.

BOC members present did not indicate whether they would consider the suggestion.

The county is expected to vote on the Chamber proposal at its Dec. 1 meeting, while the city will follow suit Dec. 7.