Downtown Covington's 1985 Transition

In the early 1980's the dozen or so blocks of "downtown Covington" were undergoing a transition. Stores were closing, buildings were going vacant, professionals were moving their offices to new one-story brick buildings on the perimeter of the city. Then something began to happen.

People started buying up the old downtown buildings and began renovating them. Specialty shops began moving into the vacant storefronts. Professionals began buying up the old office spaces, fixing them up, painting them, and in some cases adding architectural flourishes. Covington was being re-born. It was a difficult process to begin, and it is still ongoing today.

Here is an article I wrote about those original efforts to turn the downtown around. It was a transition that resulted in one of the most vibrant and durable downtown areas in the nation. 

Future of Downtown Promises New Look
Published on February 6, 1986, in the St. Tammany Farmer

(Edited version)

By Ron Barthet

COVINGTON — Downtown Covington has a secret, an ace up its sleeve, a future that rests securely on two facts. First, people all over the nation know about Covington and its beautiful, restful lifestyle, and secondly, the people here care.

Rather than look at vacant storefronts as a sign of diminishing business, locals who have a larger perspective see the circumstances as a transition, from general merchandise stores to specialty shops, boutiques and professional office space centering around the courthouse.

Covington began as a river port, with Columbia Street serving as a major thoroughfare for farmers getting their goods to market. In the late 1800's, it became the seat of parish government, slowly evolved into a world famous health resort known for its "ozone air," and most recently has delighted thousands of visitors with its unique shops and specialty stores.

The downtown area is not dying, but it is going through a metamorphosis, a re-orientation towards serving the needs of professionals and their families.

In every town there comes a time when the general merchandise stores, the businesses that serve the general public's needs, tend to head out to the major traffic intersections where the big department stores, fast food restaurants and the like huddle around the crossroads.

That leaves, in the downtown area, the specialty shops and professional service offices wno don't really need to go out where the heavy-traffic is because their clientele come to where they are. The moving out of the general department stores leaves room in the downtown area for even more professional office space and low-rent specialty stores.

In Covington, this trend is enhanced by the many professional people, accountants, attorneys, financial planners and the like, who are buying old residences near the downtown area and converting them into quality offices.

Numerous old "homes" have been converted to professional offices on the edge of downtown Covington. Also, some of the second story space in downtown buildings has been converted to offices for professionals. Early in the 20th century, it was prestigious to have your professional office in the downtown area, especially on the second floor of a corner building, where one could meet with clients while overlooking the downtown scene below.

This is happening in Amite, Hammond, Ponchatoula, and numerous other towns as well. The old downtown buildings are being "reborn" after extensive renova­tions and restorations.

One of the disadvantages of Covington is the lack of plainly visible parking space. In other courthouse towns, Amite, Franklinton and Columbia, Miss., there is usually a rather large parking lot just for the use of the persons going to the courthouse. In Covington, that is not so, and the courthouse customers often park in front of businesses all up and down Boston, New Hampshire and Columbia Streets.

The parking problem is not as challenging as it seems, however, since Covington does have the famous 'ox lots" and large parking lots located only a block away from the Courthouse. These parking lots are not that visible, however, and need to be dressed up, designated, and used by the courthouse crowd so the business customers can park close to the stores they want to visit. Parking in Covington and walking to the desired store is no more difficult than parking in a shopping mall and walking to the desired store in the mall.

The city is trying to get the ox lots organized to park the maximum number of cars possible. On any given day, the ox lots are packed  with dozens of cars.

State historic preservation officials came to Covington to discuss with several community leaders, including Mayor Ernest Cooper, the revitalization of the downtown area. Of prime interest was the well-known "Main Street Program," an organized method of helping downtown merchants coordinate their promotional and renovation efforts.

The Main Street program has been well-received throughout the nation. Hammond has such a program, with a full time manager hired to work with the merchants to stimulate business in the downtown area.

Efforts to improve sidewalks in the downtown area have been going on for some time, with decorative elements being used on some streets to enhance the downtown environment.

A portion of a recent sales tax is dedicated to the downtown area in Covington, a source of funding that is not available in other cities where the downtowns are in jeopardy.

Two of the finest examples of the renovation going on in downtown Covington are the Frederick Building and the George Davis Building at the Boston Street and Columbia Street intersection.

Both are under renovation and have met the rehabilitation criteria and guidelines to be certified by the Louisiana State Preservation Office for historic projects, as well as the U.S. Department of Interior (National Park Service) out of Atlanta.

Both building owners plan to take advantage of the tax credits, said Donald Maginnis, a New Orleans architect.

The Frederick building, in the southwest corner of the intersection, was built in 1900 by Mayor Emile Frederick as a two story masonry commercial building. The first floor has always been shops, and the second floor was intended for (but never used) as offices.

Its current renovations included exterior cleaning and paint removal, installation of an elevator and a lobby, new electrical and plumbing systems, and development of the second floor as 7,000 square feet of office space and corridors. Two skylights were restored as well. The building is owned by Oscar McMillan of New Orleans, and William Russell of Covington is general contractor for the work. George Scott prepared the historic certification application, according to Maginnis.

On the southeast corner is the George Davis building, constructed in 1906 as the two story Covington Bank and Trust Co. The first floor and Columbia Street - first floor facade were modernized in the 1960's now used as a shoe store.

Current renovations to that building include a new stairway and a new elevator, new electrical, plumbing and heating and air conditioning systems, a new roof, and redevelopment of the second floor as 4500 square feet of office space.

The office space was last used during World War II, and many of the original paneling, mill work and partitions will be retained, along with the original skylight.
The architects for this project were Maginnis/Gallaugher Joint Venture Architects, and the building is still under construction, scheduled for completion in April.

Other buildings throughout Covington are in various stages of renovation and rehabilitation, and several others have been purchased but not yet started.
Other outstanding examples of renovative work is the Henry Hood Building, Schoen Real Estate and Roberts Beauty College, all at the Columbia Street- Lockwood Street intersection. St. Tammany Homestead, the New Hampshire House, Vermont Street Apartments, Jahncke and Byrd, CPA, offices and Farris, Earhart and Sutherlin law offices are all good examples of residences being done over for use as professional offices.

The fine reputation that Covington has nationwide is welt-deserved with major articles appearing in travel magazines, lifestyle periodicals, books on retirement spots and numerous other media and word-of-mouth reports by their friends.

The Lee Lane experience has set Covington merchandising on a new-course. The specialty shops there have given downtown Covington a fresh merchandising direction, and all over town, one can see evidence that the future of the town lies in specialty shops and quaint little stores.

Some of the stores have statewide reputations, some even nationwide. The attention of big-money developers has been focused on downtown Covington for some time, and several projects have been designed. Nothing has been made public yet, since financing these projects takes time.

Still, there are people who would like to see development along the river, complete with riverwalks and assorted shops. Efforts are being made to package Covington so major shopping developments will be more attracted to the downtown area, making sure they are In keeping with the historical district precepts.

At the same time, the promoters of the historical district continue to work on projects to enhance and build its contribution to the downtown area. The Keep America Beautiful committee will soon be gearing up its massive educational effort in beautifying and keeping the area beautiful through litter reduction and control.

Key community leaders are serving on numerous committees, economic development committees, the Ready Cities program and other civic groups to investigate every inducement to the health and well-being of the downtown area.

The state highway department is doing what it can to keep traffic flowing so the downtown area can be conveniently accessed. I talked to one engineer at the state highway department in Baton Rouge, and he said they were willing to put in a four-lane highway along Boston Street through the middle of downtown Covington, though I responded by saying the historic district regulations would probably prevent that. He agreed.

All in all, those who stay aware of downtown Covington's long-term potential know that the current transition will gradually move from empty storefronts to the creation of high quality professional offices. The multitude of specialty shops will attract customers from hundreds of miles, as they already do on Lee Lane and Boston Street.

Covington is a city in transition, a transition which will take longer because of current economic conditions. But once the developers secure financing for their proposals, Covington will once again come alive with activity. As the seat of government for the fastest growing parish in the state, and the eighth fastest growing county in the nation, Covington will be a showplace and an accomplishment for all those who live here.

Click on the image to make it larger. 

Clipping of original article