Main Street OKs early termination of agreement

COVINGTON -- The Main Street Covington board of directors agreed Tuesday morning to waive a 90-day notice of termination of its intergovernmental agreement with the city and county.

Mayor Ronnie Johnston notified the Main Street board and Newton County via letter June 7 that the Covington City Council voted on June 3 to terminate the agreement. All sides are entitled to a 90-day written notice prior to the termination becoming effective. Johnston asked for that notice to be waived so that termination could be effective July 1, the beginning of the fiscal year.

The City Council terminated the agreement so it could negotiate to put Main Street under the Chamber of Commerce umbrella. The Chamber would be the recipient of the hotel/motel tax revenues previously paid to Main Street, Johnston said in the letter.

Main Street board members still have questions about how Main Street would function under the Chamber.

Chamber President Hunter Hall said it would operate similarly to the tourism and economic development arms. The Chamber board of directors would have ultimate oversight of the program of work and finances of Main Street, acting on advisement from the Main Street board. Some Main Street board members questioned whether such a structure would result in a "watered down" Main Street. They were concerned whether Main Street's interests and goals would be represented.

Board member Susan Kirk, owner of Scoops downtown, asked whether the Chamber board should include members representing Main Street. Asked if there are any downtown merchants on the board, Hall said there are two members who work at downtown businesses, Michelle Bryant-Johnson with the Arts Association in Newton County, and Hillary Edgar with the Alexander Royston law firm.

Andrea Smith, owner of Square Perk, expressed concern that the new structure could slow down the permitting process for downtown events. Treasa Waters, editor and publisher of About Covington to Madison magazine, noted that the Chamber typically focuses countywide, while Main Street focuses primarily on the downtown district. She wondered if the Chamber board would be knowledgeable about issues particular to Main Street, like fire codes, parking and certain grants.

Hall said the board of directors would act as a "parent board," looking at overall program of work and budget, without getting too involved with the details.

"They're not going to try to micromanage it; they're not going to try to control you," he said.

Waters asked if the city would fund the Main Street director salary while allowing the Chamber to make the hiring decision. Main Street Director Josephine Kelly resigned last month.

City officials in attendance confirmed that the Chamber would be allowed to do the hiring. City Manager Leigh Anne Knight said the same process is in place for the tourism director and economic development team.

"We fund their program and they are responsible for the hiring based on their expertise," she said.

The Main Street budget for fiscal year 2013 is $87,736.16, split evenly by the city and county. In addition, Main Street receives a portion of hotel/motel taxes.

According to the city of Covington, from July 1, 2012, through April 30, Main Street has received $98,289.91 in hotel/motel tax.

Asked what portion of the Chamber's budget would be Main Street dollars, Hall estimated 20 percent. Upon request, after the meeting, he provided the following budget projections for the Chamber the 2013-14 fiscal year:

-- Economic development, funded by city and county, $270,000;

-- Tourism, funded by hotel/motel tax, $201,000;

-- Chamber income, from dues, events, fundraisers, $285,000; and

-- Main Street, approximately $185,000.

In addition, Johnston has proposed hiring a retail/small business recruiter. That would be city-funded at a projected $93,000.

In a previous email to the Citizen, Hall said because economic development, tourism and Main Street involve public dollars, the Chamber would like to have more participation from elected officials in its committees.

The Chamber would develop success criteria for Main Street, subject to the City Council's approval, that would be the basis for strategies, budgets and personnel decisions moving forward, he said.

"Regarding financial oversight, it is the Chamber's expectation that, similar to Economic Development and Tourism, the Chamber board will have oversight and management of funds to be used to accomplish the mutually agreed upon success criteria. Budgets and use of funds will be submitted to the council for review, and as we are today, the Chamber will be held accountable accordingly," he said.

At a meeting Friday with a few Main Street board members, merchants and others interested in the proposed changes, Johnston said a consultant would be hired to organize the transition and serve as acting Main Street director. The consultant would assist with hiring a permanent director, he said. Planning Director Randy Vinson is now interim director. Steve Horton was initially appointed to that position.

Board of Commissioners Chairman Keith Ellis said the county's interest is to have a representative on the Main Street board to protect the county footprint downtown and the county-owned Square Park. He said the county will leave the legal aspects, hiring and firing and money decisions to the city and Chamber. The BOC has not yet approved early termination of the intergovernmental agreement. Commissioners have endorsed the concept of a swap that would put the city in total control of Main Street and the county in control of Keep Covington-Newton Beautiful. A transition team to work out the details of that arrangement, as well as the Chamber's take over of Main Street, is expected to meet in the coming weeks. The team will include two members of the City Council, BOC, Main Street board and the Chamber.