Back in the 1950s downtown Covington was a thriving retail center for Newton County. On the square shops sold shoes, clothes, jewelry, and furniture. There were restaurants, hair salons and barber shops. Then came the growth of giant suburban malls offering all those services and more. Many downtown businesses either moved out or closed up. By 5 p.m. each day, center city was a ghost town.
Angi Beszborn, founder and owner of the Mystic Grill on the square, watched it happen.
“My mom’s family came to Newton County in 1805 — My grandmother ran the five-and-ten store on the square, my grandfather drove the town’s fire truck,” says Angi. “I have deep roots in the square and was saddened by the community’s long decline.”
Then the film industry came to town, bringing with it over the years more than 160 film and TV productions. Most of those would not have been here without the effective tax credit that has made Georgia one of the leading locations in the world for screen entertainment production.
“I don’t think people fully understand how important the film industry is to Georgia,” Angi says. “They might get a bit impatient when they have to wait in a line to get into our restaurant, but they need to remember what a benefit it is to Covington to have those jobs come to town.
“The good news is that because there is more and more information out there about the film industry in Georgia, people are beginning to appreciate its value to local communities.”
Financially, the local payoff is huge. According to Laura Sullivan, City of Covington Downtown Coordinator, about 96,000 visitors a year come to Newton County to tour the TV and movie production sites, including those associated with the “Vampire Diaries,” the blockbuster series that stimulated what some locals call “the Disney World for vampire fans.” Those visitors spent about $102 million in 2021.
“When tourists come to Covington, they spend money in our local businesses, which goes back into the pockets of our small business owners,” says Laura, citing Mystic Grill, Vampire Stalkers Tour, and Main Street Trolleys as examples of businesses being created specifically for film tourism.
And growth begets more growth. Since the Mystic Grill opened, 19 more retailers have launched businesses on the square. TV and film income has resulted in a local tax saving of about $199 per household.
More evidence of Covington’s boom caused by the film industry is the flow of customers into the Alley Gift shop run by Angi in the basement below her restaurant. The tiny shop is filled with “Vampire Diaries” souvenirs but can accommodate only 40 shoppers at a time.
“On Saturdays I have to hire someone to count the people coming through the door so I don’t overload that store,” Angi says. In one year, 250,000 people visited that shop, 40 at a time.
In the film industry, the usual pattern is that a real location somewhere inspires a replica on a movie set. In the case of the Mystic Grill, a restaurant came down off the screen to be duplicated in real life on the square.
The bonanza extends to people and jobs. Mike Akins, business agent the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Local 479 –– the men and women behind the cameras –– says that when the tax incentive first went into effect in 2008, there were less than 50 IATSE members in the Covington area. There are now 621.
And Mike emphasizes that these are skilled technicians: set designers, graphic artists, sound mixers, prop masters, electricians, welders, and all manner of construction crafts from local businesses. Many of these TV and film production people have moved their families to Georgia because of their faith in the industry’s future here.
But what if the tax incentive was abandoned and all the benefits went away? Angi pulls no punches in response: “It would hurt. I would chain myself to something in a protest. To be successful I need locals and tourists. Lose the films and my business would be cut in half and those other 19 businesses would suffer as well.”
Photo credit Cinelease Studios - Three Ring Studio