Here’s a great case of life imitating art –– and creating dozens, maybe hundreds, of jobs in the process.
When the long-running TV series “The Vampire Diaries” started filming in Covington, producers used the exterior of a local building as the fictional Mystic Grill, the meeting place for the characters.
The show’s popularity gave local restaurant owner Angi Beszborn an idea: Renovate the inside of the historic 1906 building on the town square to look just like the in-studio set of the restaurant, and make the Mystic Grill a real-life place to eat and drink.
Just more than three years later, her idea has become a catalyst for the rebirth of the Covington town square. It was previously more bare, with just Amici’s pizza restaurant and Scoops ice cream shop open in the evenings, she said. Now the square bustles with shops and restaurants, and the series producers contributed to the sprucing up of the square’s park.
“Very rarely does something jump off the screen into real life,” she says. “It was really beneficial for the town. The show came in and then we opened the grill after that.
“And the whole entire square has just boomed since then. Now we have all kinds of boutiques and other restaurants and all kind of things that have opened up.
“If that’s not impact, I don’t know what is.”
Tax relief for homeowners
TV and film production, led by “The Vampire Diaries,” accounts for 90 percent of the tourism revenues, says Jenny McDonald, director of tourism at the Covington/Newton County Chamber of Commerce. In 2015, tourism:
Supported 1,140 jobs with payroll of $23.38 million
Generated $125.60 million in direct tourist spending, an increase of $5.49 million
Created $5.14 million in state tax revenues, an increase of $470,000
Generated $3.7 million in local tax revenues, an increase of $100,000
Led to each Newton County household receiving $245.63 (or 2.75 percent) in tax relief.
Tourism officials say they still see steady business from “The Dukes of Hazzard” and “In the Heat of the Night,” from the 1970s and ‘80s. They have maps of filming locations for those shows and movies like “My Cousin Vinny” and “Remember the Titans.” They even talk of maybe opening a TV and film museum someday.
Productions are good for business
Two Dolly Parton TV movies were filmed here recently. Scouts from other productions are also checking out locations to use in the future. And a massive studio is being built in the county.
That’s all great news to the tourism officials.
“We’re just so blessed with one filming after another,” says Ralph Staffins, the chamber’s president and CEO.
He, McDonald and others work with town-square and other businesses to make the most of branding opportunities — like “bite night” for restaurants; “vampire wine” at The Cork wine shop; and “Damon’s Delight” at Scoops, named for the character of series star Ian Somerhalder, who has been a frequent guest.
Jessica Lowry, owner of On Location Gifts on the square and of Mystic Falls Tours, makes sure to give shout-outs to local businesses so fans will know of those kinds of connections.
“All these people on the square have that extra bump,” she says. “These businesses wouldn’t be here without the filming.”
‘Get yourself a TV show’
On social media, fans of “The Vampire Diaries” helped give the real-life Mystic Grill early support that was crucial.
The place is decorated with details and little touches that match the studio set used for filming –– like tiles, a chalkboard, and Tiffany glass sconces on posts.
“As soon as they see the bar, they go, ‘Oh my gosh, this is the Mystic Grill bar,” Beszborn says.
Now, the restaurant she runs with her husband and Mayor Ronnie Johnston and his wife, has won critical accolades for its menu of “Southern with a fun, upscale twist” cuisine.
Menu highlights include The Mystic Burger, Sweet Tea Fried Chicken, The O’Hara Burger,
Mystic Grill Waitress Develyn Giles
steaks, and shrimp and grits. The restaurant uses ingredients from local farms and vendors, spreading the impact of “The Vampire Diaries” to even more businesses and jobs.
Among its own fans is Travel and Leisure, which wrote: “The restaurant is known to serve up some pretty delicious fare, making it well worth a visit for fans and non-fans (of ‘The Vampire Diaries’) alike.”
It has a bar, meeting rooms and a rooftop deck for entertainment that also gives a sweeping view of that beloved, and bustling, town square.
“Our little town square has become booming again,” says Beszborn, a Covington native. “The dime store my granny had is not coming back. This is the next best thing. People in the South love to support local businesses.
“If you think it takes 10 years to build up your town, get yourself a TV show,” she says. “It doesn’t take long.”