COVINGTON -- Mayor Ronnie Johnston received permission from the City Council Monday to move forward with several initiatives that he said will spur economic development.
The council approved a resolution, at Johnston's request, to provide incentives for businesses to locate in the city. The resolution calls for the City Council, upon recommendation of the city staff or the Covington-Newton County Office of Economic Development, to consider reducing utility tap fees for new commercial or industrial users on a case-by-case basis. The council would consider the number of new jobs created by the business, the average wage, whether the business is in the best interest of the city and the anticipated utility load generated by the business when considering whether to reduce fees.
The business owner would be required to retain new employees for a minimum of two years. The reduction in tap fees would be up to 10 percent. The city council can also consider an up to 20 percent reduction in monthly utility charges for a specified time period. Other inducements such as utilities built or run to the business and tax inducements may also be considered, along with waiving of permit and plan review fees.
Johnston said there is currently no recruitment strategy or incentive package for small businesses such as retail and restaurants. The city funds the Office of Economic Development's industrial recruitment efforts at $150,000 a year, he said. Electric Cities of Georgia also provides some industrial economic development recruitment and the city funds that at around $80,000 or $90,000 a year, he said.
"I think it's time we step up. We've got to do more ourselves and quit just waiting for things to get better," he said. Johnston said he has spoken with two prospects in the last few days that combined would bring $3 million in capital investment and about 30 jobs. Having such an incentive package would help attract those and other businesses, he said.
The idea is to have incentives ready when prospects show up, he said.
"We've got to come up with guidelines so we can advertise and basically tell the entire world, I guess, that Covington is open for business, for lack of a better term," he said. Johnston said he wants to get more aggressive in recruiting restaurants and retail, for example, sending a coalition to Cracker Barrel headquarters and urging them to take another look at Covington. Cracker Barrel was targeting a site on Ga. Hwy. 142 several years ago but nixed plans to locate there.
"We've got to realize opportunity does not always knock but sometimes you have to make it happen," he said.
In addition, the council agreed to hold a work session to discuss tourism promotion.
Tourism is funded almost entirely by the hotel/motel tax, with the Covington Chamber of Commerce receiving approximately $200,000 per year and Main Street Covington $100,000 a year, Johnston said. Those dollars can only be spent on promoting tourism, he said. Johnston said he wants the council to consider, "Are we getting the biggest bang for that $300,000 per year?"
Johnston said branding is the starting point, defining "what are we and what are we trying to say to people?"
The council also approved a housing inducement program in an effort to increase the number of new houses built and bought locally. The pilot program would provide free water and sewer tap fees to homeowners agreeing to live in a new home at least 60 months and to a lien being placed on their property. Relocation expenses totaling $2,400 would also be provided to the homeowner at the end of 24 months of continuous residency. The total cost to the city per eligible applicant would likely run between $6,000 and $8,000, Johnston said, and initially, the program would be capped at the first 20 approved applicants.
The incentives would apply only to new houses constructed in city limits that are owner occupied for the terms of the agreement.
Councilwoman Hawnethia Williams asked how the city could justify incentives for new residents but not provide residents who have lived here all their lives with anything similar.
The program would apply to new homes of any value, Johnston said, and would apply to not only out of town residents who move here but current residents who relocate into a newly constructed home.
"Somebody who is tired of renting and wants to build a home in Covington, this would apply to them," he said, adding the idea is to provide incentives for everyone "to go to that next level."
Williams said she would support the program as long as it is fair to everyone.
Johnston said Covington is probably one of the first local governments in the state to have such a program.
City Attorney Ed Crudup said an initial concern was whether such a program would be a violation of the clause that prohibits giving away public money, unless something of value is received in return.
"If this is successful, it will be something of value to the city of Covington and to its citizens and, therefore, we would suggest that it's not a gratuity," Crudup said.
The council unanimously approved a resolution creating the housing incentive program.
Finally, Johnston received permission from the council to pursue ways to beautify the city's exits off I-20. Johnston said he wants to use an inmate crew, community service workers, city workers, private volunteers and Department of Transportation crews to give the main entrances into town a facelift. Primarily, this would involve mowing, landscaping and litter removal.
"I want the city of Covington to kind of take the lead on this. Obviously, it's going to take several different entities. It's not just a city of Covington issue but I want us to take the stance that we can do better than we're doing right now," he said.
Johnston asked for permission from the council to "pull all these different entities together to get something done." Any capital expenditures would come back before the council for approval, he said.
The council did not vote but gave consensus for Johnston to move forward with the project.