The Northshore’s Best Kept Secret

Covington is in the middle of a renaissance.

Covington 01

Before he became the mayor of Covington in 2019, Mark Johnson was asked what he would do to attract new businesses to the city’s downtown area. For many years, the idyllic Main Street was the place to go on the Northshore, with classic hotels serving mint juleps and white tablecloth dinners and old-school movie houses showing classic silent films along with the latest sci-fi blockbusters.

The soft-spoken, retired businessman was new to politics — his campaign for mayor was his first run for public office — but Johnson spent a lifetime working to help businesses succeed. For him, it was a no-brainer.

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“My answer at that time was very simple,” Johnson said. “Make sure that the businesses that are here are successful.” Despite being a newcomer to the small town’s political scene, Johnson soundly defeated two longtime Covington political leaders, a clear sign that his messaging resonated with voters.

Johnson said his philosophy is that if you take care of existing businesses, you won’t have to go out and look for new ones. “If what’s here isn’t successful, no incentive that you offer will be enough,” Johnson said.

Part of his focus for Covington has been bringing in new investments to help renovate and expand some of the downtown’s historic buildings, such as the iconic Southern Hotel on North New Hampshire Street, and a $5 million renovation of the Star Theatre, a movie house built in 1942 that once sat up to 1,000 people before being split into a two-screen theater in the 1970s.

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The Star has sat empty since Hurricane Katrina, but the new plans for the 10,000-square-foot building are ambitious and set to revive the once vibrant space. The vision is to create a four- to six-lane boutique bowling alley in the center, along with a rooftop lounge and multiple stages for small acoustic bands and entertainment.

All in all, downtown Covington is currently looking at more than $17 million in new investments, and a whole host of new businesses moving into the area. A former barbershop and law office is now home to TAVI, first Northshore restaurant from BGR Hospitality — formerly the Besh Restaurant Group — which offers an Israeli/Lebanese-inspired menu under chef Fariz Choumali, who formerly led the kitchen at Shaya.

There’s also The Greyhound, a gastropub cast as a “family-friendly tavern” from chefs Torre and David Solazzo, the couple behind Del Porto Ristorante, an Italian restaurant just up the street in downtown Covington, and Valencia, a Spanish restaurant that serves tapas and paella. There’s also The Dakota Restaurant, which serves American dishes “inspired by Southern flavors,” which just opened at the end of 2022 in downtown Covington.

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For Johnson, these new players are a testament to the success of focusing on helping already existing businesses.

“We did not go out and solicit them,” Johnson said. “They are seeking space in Covington and that’s extremely gratifying.”

And it’s not just dining and sophisticated entertainment options that are opening up. The old Rouses supermarket on Park Place Drive is slated to be renovated for two new businesses: Urban Air Adventure Park and Goldfish Swim School, both designed for family fun.

Chris Masingill, CEO of St. Tammany Corporation, said the region welcomes the new ventures with open arms.

“Family entertainment and children’s education venues provide opportunities for St. Tammany’s growing population and young families across the region to safely enjoy the superior quality of life our community offers,” he said.

Lacey Osborne, president and CEO of the St. Tammany Chamber of Commerce, echoed Masingill’s sentiments about the new ventures, both of which are expected to open in November.

“Since St. Tammany has been called ‘family-ville,’ it will be most welcome,” Osborne said of Urban Air Adventure Park and Goldfish Swim School before adding, “As a grandmother, I can personally attest to that!”

Mayor Johnson’s business philosophy of “taking care of what’s already here first” has proved to be an effective one for Covington’s economic growth, especially in the city’s historic downtown area. But Covington’s success in the last few years really traces its roots back to the early 1990s, when some of the city’s citizens came together to focus on revitalizing the region, including starting “Keep Covington Beautiful,” a nonprofit dedicated to “involving all citizens in enhancing and preserving the beauty of Covington, Louisiana.”

Over the last few decades, Keep Covington Beautiful has performed activities such as collecting and recycling spare tires and reams of excess paper in homes and offices citywide; sweeping the Bogue Falaya River of litter; collecting trash from hot spots; keeping downtown planters lush with flowers; and helping the city or other groups with their projects, including the collection of hazardous materials and special cleanups.

Because of the group’s work, Covington has earned the designation as a “Tree City” by the National Arbor Day Foundation every year for the past 30 years. The organization works to meet core requirements by maintaining an active Tree Board and community tree ordinance; spending at least $2 per capita on urban forestry; and celebrating Arbor Day. This year, Keep Covington Beautiful celebrated Louisiana Arbor Day with a tree seedling giveaway at the Covington Farmers Market, handing out six-hundred black gum, pond cypress, possum haw, red bay, Shumard oak, and smooth sumac seedlings for free.

The Arbor Day giveaway serves as a nice metaphor: Growth takes time.

“I really think the seeds of what we’re enjoying today were planted by Keith Villere when he was mayor, and groups of people like Dan Robertson who were just so civic-minded and could see the potential of Covington,” said Lisa Condrey Ward, an attorney, hotelier, real estate developer, historic preservationist and jack-of-all-trades behind projects like the renovation of the Southern Hotel. “They’re the ones that set up the Downtown Development District, the historic commission and just took steps to lay the groundwork for the quality of life that we have. And you know, all that takes time.”

Ward said it’s also the people who live in Covington who “make it the extraordinary place that it is.”

“So many people have lived here for so long that you have this continuity of institutional knowledge and history,” Ward said. “And people are really passionate about that, which is great.”

That passion and support from the community made it easier for Ward and her partners to take on renovations of beloved and historic icons like the Southern Hotel. That includes support from historic tax credits. Ward said the renovations couldn’t have been done without them.

And like the trees that grew from seeds planted in the ’90s, the projects took time and commitment.

“We did the renovation from 2012 until we opened in June of 2014,” Ward said. “And then in 2018, also with historic tax credits, we bought the old Post Office building that used to be part of the hotel property back in the early 1900s … and we bought it and also renovated it to make six more suites.”

Ward and her partners are also building new construction projects to add new condos and additional retail space across the street from the hotel. The project calls for the current six 1940s-era storefronts along North New Hampshire between Boston and Gibson streets to be torn down and a new 43,000-square-foot Mission-style building erected on the land.

The new site will be called the “Summer House,” and the building will have retail space and 25 parking spaces on the first level, 24 hotel rooms on the second, and four condominiums and a full-service spa on the third floor. The project is expected to cost up to $11 million.

Ward said that with all the current commercial viability that’s happening in Covington, more and more people want to live downtown so they can easily access and walk to everything and be in the heart of the action. “It really is the classic village or small town model,” Ward said. “We’re fortunate because so many towns of this size in other places struggle. But right now — knock on wood — we seem to be in a bit of a renaissance.”

Mayor Mark Johnson said he has similar impressions about a renaissance happening in town. He pointed to the permit requests his office sees for residential, residential renovation, additions, commercial renovations, commercial moving and other projects that need approval from the city. Johnson said that normally they see in the low 200s for permit requests each month, but in the last two months, his office has received more than 250 each month — a sign of continued growth and investments in future projects, some of which are years down the road.

For Johnson, it’s all about the climate, the ambiance, which he likened to the “old days of Mayberry.”

“There’s a relaxed atmosphere in downtown Covington, where you can park your car and you can walk from one space to another one place to another place,” he said. “You can go shopping, you can conduct your legal business, your accounting, go into a nice restaurant and never once feel uncomfortable.” Johnson said they’ve recently seen audience participation at events put on downtown as much as 50% higher than in previous years.

When asked what he wished more people knew about Covington, Johnson said, “I guess the fact that we’d like to keep how wonderful we are a secret.” After having the fact that he was telling this to a journalist working on a magazine feature focused on his city pointed out to him, Johnson laughed and said that he could see how that would come off as a funny thing to put in an article. “It’s just that we do recognize that we are one of the coolest cities in America,” Johnson said. “We have centuries of history, incredible cuisine, and wonderful live music — we have over 100 free musical acts a year.”

Lisa Condrey Ward also laughed at the idea of Covington’s ongoing renaissance being little known or classified information.

“Well, it’s definitely not a secret anymore,” she said. “I get several calls a month from people with really great, really cute store ideas, restaurant ideas, and they’re just having a hard time finding a spot downtown. People are circling that little area because I think they recognize the walkability of it, and with all the residential building going on in the city, it’s just a great spot to be in.”

Ward said the desire for bigger entertainment venues is clear evidence that Covington is no longer a well-kept secret, but an event destination. It’s also why she and her partners purchased the old Vintage Court event space located about 3 miles from the Southern Hotel. They plan to rename it the “Greenwood” and use it as a larger venue option in the area.

“It’s got incredible outdoor space. It’s beautiful. It has two indoor ballrooms,” Ward said. “So it could host corporate events, it could host weddings — anything from 50 people to probably upwards of 800 people.”

While there are many recent wins, for Ward, there is still plenty of work to be done. But at the same time, there are also plenty of opportunities.

She said there are a lot of underutilized buildings in the area that could be revamped or repurposed to support the downtown’s expansion. A prime example is the courthouse in the town square, which Ward said has sat mostly unused — except as the occasional hurricane or emergency center — and is an eyesore that could be transformed into a public space that is accessible to all and remains true to the historic architecture and character of the downtown area.

So, while the groundwork for the current renaissance happening in downtown Covington can trace its lineage back to civic engagement in the 1990s, it takes continual watering and nurturing to keep it alive. Preservationists like Ward and leaders like Johnson, who are committed to the city’s continued success and growth are the latest in a long line of civic leaders in Covington who are working to ensure a bright and blooming future.

And if the secret isn’t out already, it certainly is now.


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