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Covington Takes a Shot at Riverfront Development

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COVINGTON — More than 32 acres/1.25 miles along the City’s riverfront are targeted to be transformed into a “waterfront promenade” with performance pavilions, riverfront walkways and trails for pedestrians and bikers, as part of the regional Riverfront Commons project spearheaded by nonprofit developer Southbank Partners.

Last week, after over ten years of due diligence and collaboration, City officials presented draft construction documents to Commission that revealed the future plans of Covington’s Ohio Riverfront and a funding option to make it happen. The City has now applied for an $11mn grant from the US Department of Transportation, for the redevelopment of the City’s riverfront area spanning from Highway Avenue to the Licking River, a site that has drawn much negative attention to the City as a crucial but underdeveloped site for over twenty years.

The construction documents are engineer renderings that outline the exact proposal for transitioning the conceptual plans into reality, taking into consideration all engineering and architectural challenges such as riverside stabilization of flood plain property and maintenance issues. While in draft form, these are about 90% complete, according to City Engineer, Mike Yeager. He says, “We need to include feedback from regional officials and expert stakeholders on the plans into the submission. This is where we are now.” The construction documents, once finalized, will be sent to the US Army Corps of Engineers for approval.

City officials envision a multi-faceted “waterfront activity center” with its prime focus to provide alternative modes of transportation to the community. The approach aims to diversify transportation for the urban core and champion walkability and bike-ability. The new development offers the public multiple ways to interact with the space that will attract companies, employees and residents alike. It enables Covington to have a direct relationship with its riverfront, with a perfect mix of green space and urban convenience, a ‘recipe ripe for economic development’, according to officials.

Other amenities include kayak and paddleboard launches on “Cobble Beach” underneath the Roebling Suspension Bridge, restrooms, lighting, landscaping and other amenities, Assistant City Manager for Development Larisa Sims said in a presentation to City Commission in May.

“Our riverfront is our community’s front door and it’s our turn to make the most of it. Newport and Cincinnati have both done great work with their riverfront property and we owe it to our community and the region to be part of that effort. I think what we’re really trying to do is open up the vista, be part of the regional effort and let people enjoy that site,” she said.

The grant application that was submitted was to the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER Discretionary Grant program, which provides a unique opportunity for the Department of Transportation (DOT) to invest in multi-modal projects that promise to achieve critical national objectives. Since 2009, Congress has dedicated more than $4.1 billion for six rounds to fund projects that have a significant impact on the Nation, a region or a metropolitan area.

City officials are acutely aware that TIGER applications for fiscal year 2014 funding totaled $9.5 billion, 15 times more than available funding, however, they are keeping a positive outlook.

City Manager Larry Klein says “We know the competition is fierce, but we think Covington’s application has a compelling case because the project leverages so much surrounding economic development that the cost benefit ratio is off the charts.” Taken as a whole, Cincinnati’s various riverfront construction projects just across the river from Covington, represent a significant investment of approximately $3 billion in urban infrastructure.

Sims said city officials could find out within the year whether the TIGER grant, which requires a 20% percent match from the city, will be approved. In the meantime, she says, “we are in fund and friend-raising mode. Our objective is to identify more funding sources to add to the vibrant partner network involved in the project.” 

Current partners that have provided leveraged funding totaling $3.2mn for the project  including:  the US Army Corps of Engineers with a $384,000 feasibility study; US EPA with $248,000 for a master plan; and the HUD Sustainability Communities Challenge Grant with $359,300 that helped to create the City Center Action Plan. Partners that have helped to fund implementation the project include: OKI Regional Council of Governments with $227,868 through the SNK Grant; State of Kentucky and Kenton County with an SNK Grant Match of $75,000; the City of Covington with $380,700 for design funding; and Vision 2015 with $64,504 for the Blueway Water Trails. Other grants will be sought until full funding of the project is achieved.

According to Jack Moreland, Director of Southbank Partners, “This whole thing started back in 2002/03 with a study conducted by Woolpert, [an engineering, architecture, and design firm based in Dayton, Ohio] that identified a trail along the river that connected six Northern Kentucky River cities including Covington, Newport, Bellevue, Ludlow and Dayton. Then it became apparent that the US Army Corp of Engineers would have to be involved. First a reconnaissance study was completed as a first phase. We are now in the second phase which is really a feasibility study to see what would be needed to achieve riverside stabilization. The full blown fix will have to be funded by Congress.”

The bigger regional effort that encapsulates Covington’s efforts is known as Riverfront Commons, a riverfront trail that spans these six cities, making the riverfront accessible to the public. Southbank Partners is the regional nonprofit project manager of the Riverfront Commons. Back in December 2011, the six riverfront cities passed an interlocal agreement to make Southbank Partners the development partner for a regional riverfront development project. Moreland says, “It was a collective decision and when that happened, it gave Southbank the authority to move forward with things. Now, when we work with Frankfort, they know we are speaking for all of our cities.”

Moreland attributes the real key to current progress as the point in which cities decided to create critical mass to work together formally. “Had they not done that, we could not have come this far”, he says.

In 2009, Woolpert, in conjunction with Southbank Partners, presented Covington with a Covington Waterfront Debris Deflection and Bank Stabilization Master Plan that was incorporated into the City’s Action Plan that was finalized a few years later. The Action plan focused the City’s resources on Urban revitalization and stated that development of the riverfront played a crucial role in its success.

Riverfront development for Covington has made progress, but there is still much to be done. According to Larisa Sims, “Average incubation for a project like this can be twenty years; funding a public infrastructure project like this can be tricky, elections change things, so it’s key that we keep momentum on the vision. Southbank helps keep the regional focus on the prize. We’re very lucky to have several partners who have been instrumental in taking the project this far. For now, we just have to wait and see if our applications and grant requests are approved and move forward.”

In terms of timeline, the City is hopeful that the funding and approval on the construction documents will be confirmed within the year.