St. Tammany Chamber West & CBA Mayoral Forum Recap

The West St. Tammany Chamber of Commerce and the Covington Business Association hosted a forum for the Covington Mayoral and Council-at-Large candidates on Wednesday, Feb. 6th at the Fuhrmann Auditorium.
The forum participants included Jerry Coner, Patrick McMath and Larry Rolling (Council-at-Large candidates) as well as Mark Johnson, Rick Smith and Candace Watkins (Mayoral candidates). The forum consisted of two parts, Q&A for at Large and Q&A for Mayoral. This article will focus on the Mayoral section, and it will be the first in a series leading up to the election in March.
Three Priorities As Mayor of Covington
Johnson – 1) streamline the communication process in local government to eliminate compartmentalization and promote community involvement 2) address the issue of flood mitigation proactively 3) continue the work to rehabilitate the West 30’s
Smith- 1) safety –ensure that police, fire and emergency services are adequately supported 2) quality of life — improve drainage, sewerage and water infrastructure
3) public service – foster public communication
Watkins –1) update Covington master plan 2) reinstate a downtown development office 3) revitalization of West 30’s to continue
Biggest Infrastructure Needs To Be Addressed
Covington’s infrastructure needs include drainage and traffic alleviation. Some of the problems have been identified at recent city council meetings, and a solid plan to address them is necessary.
Rick Smith pointed out that the hosting organizations, the St. Tammany Chamber West and the Covington Business Association, are both great assets that are underutilized with regard to communication between businesses and governmental administration. Candace Watkins brought up the need for another traffic corridor to get in and out of town, stating that there is available data that addresses the issues of traffic and drainage.
Mark Johnson suggested the concept of a liaison to represent Covington at Parish Council Meetings because many decisions affecting Covington happen at the Parish level. What is happening with the Watershed Study?
There is a committee to evaluate the best use of the Emergency Operations Center on Boston St. (old courthouse). Thoughts?
Watkins stated the community should have a stake in the process. Ideas range from art museum to city square, but ultimately, historic preservation is about tax dollars. Johnson underlined the need to identify the highest and best use of the property, adding that as mayor he would take a personal approach because of its historic value to the city. Smith brought up the fact that there are still many unknowns with regard to the property; a town square with additional parking is a possible idea; it is a vague question.
As Mayor, how do you plan to support continued revitalization with regard to business retention and preservation of heritage?
Johnson responded that retention is based on success. What works? What doesn’t? Cooperation and input from the business community and the community at large is important to accomplish goals. Smith highlighted the historic district committee, whose role is to preserve the character and aesthetic of the downtown historic district. This illustrates the need for accessibility, to process feedback from the public and the business community. Watkins discussed the Main Street program, a tenet of her first administration. The four point program consists of 1) organization 2) design 3) promotion/marketing 4) business retention and recruitment. Covington has already graduated from the Main Street Program; continue working with Covington Heritage Foundation.
How do we address underutilized properties?
Smith mentioned that historic tax credits are available for the properties within the St. John Historic District. He stressed the need of working with local real estate agencies to get unoccupied buildings inhabited. Are the buildings up to code?? Address changing the codes if that’s what it takes to get something to happen. Revisit the Main Street Program. Watkins identified Covington as a graduate of the Main Street Program; balancing progress and preservation: meet with property owners, recruit tenants, work with realtors and establish a downtown development office.
Johnson stated that it is not government’s role to dictate what happens with privately owned property; the government does have a stake in enforcing community standards, permitting processes and codes after the sale of properties; not all buildings have historic value.
Editor’s Note: Covington Weekly would like to thank St. Tammany West Chamber of Commerce and Covington Business Association for organizing this very informative and lively forum. All of the candidates provided answers that gave good insight into their direction if elected. It is clear however, that the elephants in the room are finally being addressed, i.e. sewer and water infrastructure, traffic alleviation and downtown revitalization. Stay tuned for more coverage to follow. Timothy A. Gates