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Council prolongs gazebo decision, moves forward with public restrooms

COVINGTON — While the Covington City Council chose a company to build public restrooms downtown, they prolonged the Square’s gazebo discussion until more citizen input can be given.

After an hour-long work session on Monday, the council reached a consensus, agreeing to Councilman Chris Smith’s suggestion to form a committee comprised of business owners around the Square, Newton County Arts Association members and two council members.

But Councilwomen Hawnethia Williams and Ocie Franklin were hesitant, saying the gazebo isn’t a project that will affect the whole city, instead it only focuses on “uptown.”

“I’m for the beautification, but we’re spending too much money in one spot,” Franklin said. “If you look into communities, there’s not a lot of changes. We’ve done so much to the Square, I’m looking at the city as a whole.”

The council approved the master plan for the Square in early February, which included landscaping upgrades, park benches, a historical marker and the proposed gazebo. The plans were then taken before the Newton County Board of Commissioners and were approved unanimously.

When Mayor Ronnie Johnston brought the gazebo numbers before the council last month, Smith raised concerns that $55,000 was too much to spend and it needed to be put out to bid.

At Monday’s meeting, Johnston said the price has been refigured to about $36,000 and Main Street Covington would chip in $14,000.

Smith said he’s heard a lot of negativity from his constituents about the changes.

“When I get 20 calls about the gazebo, I have to listen to my constituents. I’ve heard from ‘old Covington’ to leave the Square alone. I agree with the others that there are other areas in the city we could improve,” Smith said. “The Moser property is one of them that I’ve suggested. Is that an area where we could take that $55,000 and it be a better use of the taxpayers’ money?”

Johnston said he takes offense to the council saying the Square’s improvement plan isn’t a city-wide project. He said he’s heard citizens raise concerns about the price to build public restrooms, but he’s supported it because it’s a project that will improve the entire city.

The council bought the building located at 1147 Washington St. in order to renovate it into a women’s and men’s restroom facility. Atlanta Fire and Restoration Service Inc., which was the lowest bidder at $121,760, was approved by the council on Monday to start the project.

“If the general public believes we’re not focusing on the whole city, we can go the opposite direction and just set it aside; but I believe this plan is a piece of the puzzle that benefits the entire community,” Johnston said. “It’ll attract more people, jobs and give a place for families to enjoy.”

Citizen support

Three people spoke in favor of the gazebo including Scoops owner Susan Kirk and Covington-Newton Chamber of Commerce Director of Commercial Development Serra Phillips.

Kirk said she’s seen about 1,200 to 1,500 parents, students and their dates take prom pictures on the Square.

“A gazebo on the Square can be a place where there’s a lifetime of memories,” Kirk said. “It’s part of beautifying the downtown. It affects the whole city because it’s the central location of Covington. When there’s a special event, we all meet in the middle.”

Phillips said the gazebo would help recruit businesses and increase economic development. She said when she tried to show a potential business the photos from events on the Square, the only thing that stood out was the cheap pop-up tents used.

“This gazebo would make our park an actual park. It’s something we can all take pride in,” Phillips said. “It’s key to the quality of life and selling Covington.”

The City Council agreed to create a committee with stakeholders around the Square and others who would use the gazebo for events, then bring the discussion back before the council within a month.