Ron Carter shares a passion for his hometown with many of the 700,000-plus visitors who make Newton County a chosen destination on an annual basis. The Covington Welcome Center coordinator plays a pivotal role in the area retaining its Hollywood of the South designation.
Ron Carter rolls out the red carpet with a warm smile, a hearty handshake and a genuine adoration for his hometown. More than 700,000 guests descend upon downtown Covington annually, and for many of them, Carter provides their first impression of the small southern community in which he was raised. The Covington Welcome Center coordinator greets visitors with infectious positive energy, a treasure trove of information and wealth of insider knowledge.
“A first impression is the most important thing you can ever do for anyone,” Carter said. “You get one time to do it. That’s it. They have to know they are the most important person that ever walked into the center. We’re so happy that they’re here.”
Tourism has become a booming business and economic generator for Covington and Newton County over the course of the past three-plus decades, much of it attributable to the television and film industry. “A Man Called Peter” put the area on the map when it premiered in April 1955, but everything changed with a pair of television series in the 1970s and 1980s: “The Dukes of Hazzard” and “In the Heat of the Night.” Downtown Covington, with its picturesque Square, iconic clock tower and surrounding antebellum-era architecture, has been a preferred destination for location scouts ever since. Community leaders like Tamara Richardson, Dick James and Clara Deemer had the foresight to capitalize on the opportunity, as they identified needs, made necessary connections with movers and shakers and created the welcome center through the Newton County Chamber of Commerce. Carter credits Deemer’s efforts, in particular, for luring producers and directors to the area.
“Clara’s the one who really instigated film tourism for us,” he said. “We were actually the first camera-ready community in Georgia. Because of her contacts with the state, we’re basically the first phone call that they’re going to make when they’re looking for locations.”
“He pours his heart and soul into his job.”Ken Malcom
Carter was hired on a part-time basis in 2002 and was later promoted to regional visitor information center director. He was named coordinator in 2020, when the center transferred funding from the chamber of commerce and was placed under the auspices of the City of Covington. It was an ideal fit.
“He pours his heart and soul into his job,” said Ken Malcom, community development director for the city. “I’ve never met anyone as dedicated to the mission of an organization as Ron. He cares so deeply for people in general, and it shows anytime a new guest walks through our door.” Funding for the center—open to the public Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.—comes entirely through a local hotel/motel sales tax largely shouldered by tourists and film crews.
“Spending here from visitors is just amazing,” Carter said. “No tax dollars go to us from residents, but we end up saving every property owner in Newton County over $200 a year in property taxes. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you think of all the property owners in our county, it adds up very quickly. According to the Georgia Department of Economic Development, actual visitor spending in 2022 topped $115 million just here in Newton County.”
More than 170 movies and television shows have now been filmed in Newton County. They include “Friday the 13th Part VI,” “Prisoners,” “Remember the Titans,” “The Walking Dead” and “Sweet Magnolias.” Celebrity sightings have become commonplace around the community, from the late Carroll O’Connor and Patrick Swayze to Will Ferrell, Denzel Washington and Dolly Parton. People from all over the globe have made Newton County a vacation destination. “I’ve actually had to look countries up that I’d never heard of before,” Carter said, “so I’m getting a geography lesson, as well as just enjoying my job.” In September 2009, the game changed yet again. “The Vampire Diaries”—a television series based on the L.J. Smith book—premiered on The CW, featured 171 episodes across eight seasons and spawned two spinoffs: “The Originals” and “Legacies.” Set in the fictional Mystic Falls, Virginia, it introduced an entirely new audience to Covington and reshaped The Square, where businesses like Mystic Falls Tours and Mystic Grill continue to thrive. Fans of the original show, which starred Ian Somerhalder, Paul Wesley and Nina Dobrev, are a driving force behind the area’s latest tourism boon.
“We will easily top 100,000 guests coming into the welcome center this calendar year,” Carter said. “Of those 100,000 people, I would say conservatively 75 to 80% are ‘Vampire Diaries’ fans.”
With memorabilia from “The Vampire Diaries” as a centerpiece, the Covington Welcome Center opened a film-and-television museum in April 2021. Some of the pieces on display include the car Somerhalder drove on “The Vampire Diaries,” a General Lee stunt car door from “The Dukes of Hazzard, the Welcome to Sparta sign from “In the Heat of the Night,” various screen-used props and countless autographed movie posters. It serves as a shrine of sorts to all Covington and Newton County has experienced in its emergence as Hollywood of the South.
At the center of it all sits Carter, a 1984 graduate of Newton County High School who adores his hometown and relishes the opportunity to share it with whomever walks through the door. Through him and others like him, tourists develop a love of their own for the community.
“One of the best things for us is that visitors, on a daily basis, many times a day actually, come in, and one of the first things out of their mouths is, ‘Everyone here is so nice,’” Carter said. “When you have people from all over the world, that’s just an amazing thing to see.”
Every day brings a renewed vigor for the job.
“It’s just so amazing to drive around The Square, even at night, and see so many people walking around with their Scoops ice cream or just sitting at the park enjoying the beauty that we have here. That’s one thing that I try to tell people, residents and visitors alike. We’re very fortunate. We have everything you could ever imagine.”