Upcoming Changes for Downtown Covington, from Southern Hotel Expansion to Boutique Bowling | A Tammany
For decades, North New Hampshire Street was the place to go in downtown Covington, with the Southern Hotel providing chic respite for heat-weary visitors and multiple movie theaters showing everything from silent movies to “Star Wars”.
It’s about to be the case again, thanks to a flurry of new developments expected over the next two years. The big-budget project is an expansion of the Southern Hotel, which anchors the block. A new restaurant by BRG Hospitality and a revamped Star Theater that will offer boutique bowling, an upscale lounge and music stages are also in the works.
With no less than $17 million in new investment, the projects represent the biggest transformation of the historic district since Lisa Condrey Ward and her business partners last renovated the Southern Hotel in 2014.
Extension of the southern hotel
The 48-room boutique hotel has been a catalyst for the resurgence of downtown Covington, attracting visitors within three hours’ drive — which Ward had anticipated — as well as locals and businesses.
Now Ward wants to add more rooms, condos and retail space by razing six 1940s storefronts along northern New Hampshire between Boston and Gibson streets and constructing a 43,000-foot Mission-style building. squares on the ground. The demolition received the green light from the Covington Historic District Commission last week, and Ward says she hopes to begin work on the site in January.
Named Summer House, the building will have retail space and 25 parking spaces on the first floor, 24 hotel rooms on the second, and four condominiums and a full-service spa on the third floor. Ward estimates it could cost up to $11 million.
Across the street, other developers have big plans for the block. Patrick McMath, a state senator who owns Southern Interior Solutions, and his business partner, Andrew McIver, announced they would renovate the Star Theatre, a 1942 movie theater that once held 1,000 people – the largest of theaters in downtown Covington. The Star, which was split into a two-screen theater in the 1970s, has been vacant since shortly after Hurricane Katrina.
McMath and McIver are also nearing completion on another $1.7 million project next to the theater. They are converting a former hair salon and law firm into TAVI, the first North Shore restaurant project for BGR Hospitality, formerly Besh Restaurant Group, since it sold La Provence to Lacombe in 2017.
TAVI will offer an Israeli-Lebanese inspired menu under the direction of Fariz Choumali, who runs Shaya’s kitchen. A soft opening is scheduled for early next month, McMath said.
The star is reborn
The biggest undertaking is the Star’s $3-5 million renovation. Plans include creating a four- or six-lane boutique bowling alley in the center of the 10,000-square-foot building, as well as an upscale lounge with premium snacks that will also be managed by BRG.
McMath is also considering a rooftop lounge—”we have to replace the roof anyway”—and stages for small acoustic bands.
Ward and McMath said they see their projects working well together. Ward likes the idea of having three high-end dining options so close for his guests — the Gloriette in the Southern Hotel, TAVI, and Del Porto just across East Boston Street.
When it comes to theater ownership, many have seriously looked into ownership, Ward said, but nothing has taken off. As a result, much of the street’s historic charm is gone. “A building this big that’s vacant sucks life,” she said.
The Star had long been in McMath’s sights. “We had passed it so many times, I tried for six months to negotiate a purchase,” he said. When Warren Salles, the longtime owner of the theater property, died, McMath moved on with his son.
Originally, McMath hoped to get historical tax credits, but the theater did not qualify. “It almost killed the deal,” he said. But he and McIver convinced a private investor, whose name he declined to disclose, to buy it outright.
“It was a blessing in disguise,” McMath said of the tax credit denial. “We couldn’t have made a bowling alley. The stage should have stayed where the stage was.”
The renovation will take 18 to 24 months, he said.
A lot of construction will take place in a compact area, but Ward says it would be a plus if the two projects coincided. “I hope we can get through this misery together. It would just be kind of an ideal situation,” she said.
Whether or not their construction schedules end up agreeing, the result will be more destination businesses for the street, turning it into what Ward called an entertainment corridor.
Covington Mayor Mark Johnson also sees it that way. The area is already seeing an increase in activity over the past year or so, he said, calling the projects in northern New Hampshire to double or even triple the commercial footprint.
It highlights thriving restaurants, events at the Tammany Trace trailhead, and the opening earlier this month of the Covington Beer Garden across from the trailhead. Co-owner George Landrum says the beer garden already draws crowds – mostly locals – and they chose the location because of all the activity.
Johnson said the growth is prompting the city to take a hard look at lighting in the area.
“Downtown is becoming a nighttime destination, and we have to embrace that,” Johnson said. He wants to see a pedestrian-friendly hallway with lighting and landscaping that will allow residents to park at the St. Tammany Parish Justice Center and nearby parking lot.
McMath and Ward agree that parking could become a challenge as the area heats up.
Even so, McMath sees the projects as part of the resurgence of small town America. “Nowadays with social media and the way we’ve become divided, people are really yearning for that sense of community,” he said.
The small town atmosphere is there, but that’s not all. “We’re not Mayberry anymore,” Johnson said. “We are Mayberry on steroids.”