Clara Deemer, tourism director with the Chamber of Commerce, is leaving after 10 years. Deemer has been instrumental in attracting and assisting location scouts and film crews, such as those behind "The Vampire Diaries." She stands in front of a mural painted by students and professors from Oxford College and Maria Veliotis at a park owned and maintained by First Presbyterian Church. The park was the inspiration of church member Gene Wallace. - Staff Photo: Sue Ann Kuhn-Smith
COVINGTON -- After 10 years, Clara Deemer will retire from her position as tourism director at the end of this month.
She didn't start out in that role, but as the front desk receptionist at the Chamber of Commerce. And she calls that the absolute best place to start, because of what a person can learn about the community and how appealing it is to outsiders.
"If I had a dream and wish for every citizen of Covington, Newton County, it would be for them to work in the Visitor's Center for a month because they would have a different appreciation for this community, for the people, when they see how much they love it," she said.
Over the years, Deemer has encountered many enthusiastic fans of TV shows filmed locally, including a couple from Milan, Italy, who spent the last leg of their U.S. honeymoon in Covington to see where "The Dukes of Hazzard" was filmed. Then there was the elderly gentleman from Florida who was on oxygen but managed to make the trip to see the shooting locations for "In the Heat of the Night." Deemer arranged to have Oxford resident Grady Spradley, Carroll O'Connor's double, take him on a driving tour.
"He was thrilled to death to have Grady do it ... When he got back, he said, 'You have no idea how that really made a difference, being able to do that.' So small things like that, you really feel good about," Deemer said.
Now, of course, it's fans of "The Vampire Diaries" that are flocking to Covington in droves. Recently two girls flew all the way from Poland just to go on Mystic Falls Tours.
"It is amazing. What we take for granted, other people really enjoy, and good for them, because where would we be (without them)? We would just be a small town that was depending on ourselves to get us through when now we have visitors that are actually coming in and helping alleviate some of our tax burden," Deemer said.
When Deemer first became tourism director, the Chamber was financially bailing out the department because of insufficient revenues. Deemer credits former Tourism Director Tamara Richardson and Chamber volunteers Irene Smith and Jo McLaney with pushing tourism before there was adequate funding, soliciting donations from local businesses to produce a brochure.
"Tourism never had a budget to work with; two hotels and an increase in hotel/motel tax of 3 (percent) and 'The Vampire Diaries' really have changed the landscape of tourism. Those three things really impacted the scope of it," Deemer said.
The tourism department is funded entirely by hotel/motel tax dollars. When Deemer became tourism director in 2003, those revenues totaled $73,000, but had dropped to $59,0000 by 2005. For 2012, hotel/motel tax revenues were at $222,734.85
Chamber President Hunter Hall said the increase in those numbers has something to do with Deemer.
"Not only are we completely self-sufficient in many ways, she's led the charge in helping Covington diversify its revenue streams," and brought in substantial tax dollars to the community, he said. "Not to mention, she's so well-revered and respected among the state tourism and film people that it has created enormous good will for our community at the state level."
Craig Dominy, senior film location specialist/camera ready program manager with the Georgia Film, Music and Digital Entertainment Office, said, "Clara has been our go-to person for Covington and Newton County for many years. She helped make Covington 'Camera Ready' before we had our official Camera Ready program. She's always responded promptly when we needed filming locations, and has been an enthusiastic host for the production companies that shot in the Covington area. We and the local film/TV industry will really miss her."
Deemer said she is especially proud of the Covington Walk of Stars unveiled last fall, which has names of various celebrities, TV shows, movies and locales where filming has taken place over the years.
"The longer we have films made the more we can add to that, which is why it was started. And that was a dream of Jo McLaney and Tamara Richardson and Irene Smith, and that was something that we could go back to these ladies in a way of thanking them for something that they dreamed of that we could actually make happen," she said.
She's also pleased with major renovations to the Visitor's Center to make it more welcoming for guests.
Tourism is the marketing arm of the community, Deemer said, and she gave a special thanks to Claudia Calloway of Graphic Think for developing marketing material and Assistant Tourism Director Ron Carter. Carter is the first person seen by visitors at the Visitor's Center "and he is the best ambassador that Covington could ever hope to have," she said. "The job he does and what he has done for tourism is amazing and I cannot thank Ron enough."
Deemer will continue to work part-time from home through the end of the year assisting scouts with finding filming locations.
"Clara has made tourism work for Newton County because she's such a specialist in finding film locations. This is what's drawn tourists here," Hall said.
She also plans to spend more time with family and hopes to do volunteer work.
Jenny McDonald, who has 20 years experience in marketing and advertising, has been tapped as the new tourism director.
"We're asking her to take it not in a new direction but to leverage it and make it great and stronger and to grow what Clara created the foundation for," Hall said.
Deemer said she's most enjoyed the people she's met in her role and the excitement they've experienced while visiting Covington.
"That's what tourism is about. It's a good feeling. I think it's something to make us proud of our community and people actually want to come, they really want to come," she said. "And when you have a product in a community that makes people want to come and visit and then come back again, how proud should we be? It's overwhelming to me."