COVINGTON -- Danny Whitler recently drove his family of four from Kentucky, where they had been visiting relatives, to Newton County. Wife Amy is a fan of "The Vampire Diaries" and the couple was impressed with some of the locations they saw on the show and wondered where it was filmed. A bit of Internet research and they discovered the city of Covington and decided to make a two-day trip.
Once they got here, they discovered this is also where "In the Heat of the Night," 10-year-old daughter Kailey's favorite show, was filmed, as well as five episodes of "The Dukes of Hazzard," a favorite of teenage son Canaan.
The family was at the unveiling of the Walk of Stars downtown on Nov. 15, where Kailey had her picture taken with Grady Spradley, Carroll O' Conner's double for "In the Heat of the Night."
The family is from Fort Worth, Texas, an eight-hour drive from Newton County, but they so enjoyed their visit Danny Whitler said they'd be back in three weeks with more family members in tow.
"We love it here. The people and the atmosphere here are spectacular," he said.
The Whitlers are part of a growing contingent of "The Vampire Diaries" fans who are coming to Covington to visit filming locations and finding more to keep them coming back.
Officials with the Chamber of Commerce, local business owners and a woman who owns a tour company that takes visitors to filming locations of "The Vampire Diaries" all report visitors are coming from as far as Australia and Japan to Covington because of the series, and many, once they get here and experience the local flavor, are extending their stay, making multiple trips, or, in the case of a woman from Italy, moving here.
These visits are having a big impact on the local economy, according to the "2011 Tourism Economic Fact Sheet" generated through the Southeast Tourism Society.
Tourist spending in Newton County spiked more than 10 percent in 2011 compared to 2010, according to the report.
Direct tourist spending in the county generated $100.1 million in 2011, according to the report. Dr. Steve Morse, an economist with the Southeast Tourism Society and at the University of Tennessee, said a tourist is defined as anyone who lives 35 miles or more outside of Newton County. Morse said the report is based on data provided by the Georgia Department of Revenue and surveys of tourists throughout the state about their spending patterns. An economic model is applied to estimate how much money is generated by tourists.
For example, it's assumed that tourists account for 20 percent of every dollar spent at local restaurants, with 80 percent generated by locals. That number could be reversed in areas that are hot tourist spots, like Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge, Tenn. It's assumed that tourists account for about 95 percent of hotel revenues, to give another example. The model applied to the Newton County study is used by 38 states and hundreds of counties, Morse said.
"While it's easy to figure out the money spent, we don't have a turnstile as to how many tourists visit the county," he said.
According to the report, tourism produced $18.9 million in worker income and paychecks in 2011. That accounts for local people earning paychecks as a result of tourism spending, right down to gas station workers, said Morse. An estimated 990 jobs were generated by tourism. That number was based on Bureau of Labor statistics and the estimated amount of money it takes to create one job -- in the Southeast, that's about $85,000, Morse said.
The report also states that tourism created $2.95 million in local county tax revenues, and generated more than $8,000 in local county tax revenues per day, resulting in each household paying $178 less in local and state taxes. Morse said the tax revenues generated take into account taxes paid by businesses, including hotel occupancy taxes, and the percentage of those business taxes estimated to be paid through tourist expenditures at those businesses.
Tourist spending in the state from 2010 to 2011 is estimated to have increased 8.6 percent, versus the 10.1 percent in Newton. "For a county your size, you are growing at a faster pace than a lot of counties, even during the recession," Morse said.
He attributed much of that to "film-induced tourism."
"Covington and Newton County has the added emphasis of the film industry. I would say that the film and movie industry -- 'The Vampire Diaries,' 'In the Heat of the Night' -- has added a special element to your county," he said.
Morse said Newton County and the city of Covington have done "fantastic marketing" to exploit the film-induced tourism industry and draw fans of films and TV series filmed here.
"Tourism not only does a lot for quality of life in Newton County but it's putting it on the radar and the map and it's a lot of the local economy. A lot of people may not understand the tremendous impact it has on creating taxes and jobs," Morse said.