2019 in Review: Covington’s momentum grows

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This photo taken by Prus Construction in late October shows the massive transformation that got under way in 2019 on the Covington riverfront, the long-awaited “crown jewel” phase of Riverfront Commons.

Year saw economic energy, investments in neighborhoods & infrastructure 

COVINGTON, Ky. - Bulldozers on the riverfront. A conceptual plan for the IRS site. A “tease” to a very visible announcement on Madison Avenue. A new neighborhood grant program. Massive crowds downtown. A new economic development strategy. A streetscape project. And record help for small businesses.
 
The calendar year 2019 came to a close with City leaders almost out of breath from the tsunami of major projects, initiatives, programs and announcements that continue to push Covington forward.
 
Inside and outside of City Hall, Covington witnessed increasing momentum and tangible progress on major goals, including job creation, neighborhood investment, economic vibrancy, increased trust in financial decisions, and Covington’s reputation as a place where talented people want to be.
 
“This was the year that we continued to write a new narrative for a city that is moving toward its best days,” Mayor Joe Meyer said. “Looking back on 2019, some of the accomplishments we’re most proud of were completely new decisions, and some built on what the City leaders before us did. Almost everything we’re working on involves partners outside City Hall, and for that we’re grateful.”
 
But, Meyer said, much work remains.
 
“We’re not finished,” he said. “We know Covington is still not where it wants to be, and 2020 will see us - for example - further raise the quality of City services and the quality of life of our residents, ‘seal the deal’ on economic development projects under way behind the scenes, and market the city more actively outside our borders.”
 
So what happened in 2019? Here’s a partial list:
 
ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT:
THE IRS SITE: The IRS officially locked the doors on its massive paper-based tax-return processing facility at the end of September, punching a hole in the City’s tax coffers and workforce. But City officials worked throughout 2019 to lay the groundwork for taking advantage of the exciting development opportunity presented by the suddenly vacant 23 acres a block south of the Ohio River. A team led by Atlanta-based consultant Cooper Carry spent 10 months gathering public input, studying the market, and interviewing the development community. Then in December it presented a conceptual master plan that featured a mix of office, retail, housing and public uses with a restored street grid, a levee park and community plaza. Meanwhile, the City ended 2019 in negotiations with the federal government to buy the land.
 
YMCA BUILDING: Banners teased the site as the potential “relocation of Area 51” and “a Hogwarts satellite campus.” On Dec. 4, the future of one of Covington’s most visible intersections became known: Salyers Group and vR Group were buying the former YMCA building and Gateway Bookstore at Madison Avenue and Pike Street from the City. They plan to spend $22.5 million to turn the site into a “bourbon distillery experience,” an addition to Hotel Covington, and office space. The development will create over 100 jobs, not including potential office tenants.

This artist’s rendering from developer Salyers Group shows what the redevelopment of the historic YMCA building and its connected structures at Pike and Madison will look like when the Salyers Group and vR Group finish their $22.5 million rehab.

 
ECONOMIC TOOLBOX: The City added two tools to its economic development toolbox in 2019 and by year’s end had used both of them to help local businesses: Section 108 loans and federal Opportunity Zone tax credits. The 108 loan program offers federally backed loans of $35,000 to $1 million at low cost to help growing businesses finance things like acquiring land, a building, new equipment and machinery, or just accumulate the working capital they need to grow operations. Meanwhile, five different census tracts in Covington were deemed “Opportunity Zones,” enabling investors to take advantage of several key provisions of the Federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017.
 
PLACES TO LIVE: Housing options continued to expand in Covington in 2019 as an array of massive projects moved toward various stages of completion: The $50-million 190-apartment RiverHaus complex at 5th and Main streets was all but finished by the end of the year. ... Demolition and site work began on the $38-million, 177-unit John R. Green Lofts project on Sixth Street. ... The $50-million conversion of 290,000 square feet of office space at Madison Place into 187 apartments got under way. ... Site work began on the Covington-Park Hills border for the Park Pointe luxury home community. ... Fischer Homes continued to expand the Tuscany community off Ky. 17 with new condos, single-family homes and patio homes. ... The ribbon was cut on the Bradford on Scott complex, which turned a former strip club into five condos and five street-level commercial spaces on Scott Boulevard. ... The City changed zoning to pave the way for the 10-story tower at 303 Court St. to gain two floors, get a new façade, and be transformed into more than 100 apartments. Late in the year, Kenton County moved its administrative offices from the building and into a new complex anchored by the former Bavarian brewery building on Simon Kenton Way near Interstate 75. Meanwhile, over near the Licking River, the Covington Ladies Home - renamed The Victorian at Riverside - broke ground on an addition that will create 40 new rooms for women.
 
DOWNTOWN (and ELSEWHERE) ENERGY: Outside of housing, the City saw a plethora of development projects and announcements in 2019, including a $5.5 million commercial building version of “musical chairs” that will bring Icon Marketing Communications to Covington, see ROAD iD renovate another piece of its complex and create about 50 jobs ... the opening of the $5 million The Rooftop atop Braxton Brewing Co. ... the start of Covington Yard, which will turn ocean containers into an entertainment complex at 401 Greenup St. ... Covcor Real Estate Investments’ purchase and ongoing redevelopment of a half-dozen commercial properties in the Roebling Point neighborhood ... the ongoing redevelopment of the former Heringer Meats complex on Seventh Street into commercial space ... and a host of smaller, neighborhood-oriented places, such as the continued renovation of a former service station into The Standard restaurant in a highly visible location at Fifth and Main streets, the renovation and pending opening of a second Bean Haus location on Greenup Street in Eastside, and the opening of Larry’s bar on West Ninth Street in MainStrasse Village.
 
SMALL BUSINESSES: The popularity of the so-called Small Business Program continued to expand in 2019, with the City giving incentives to 28 smaller businesses - 17 forgivable loans for façade improvements and 11 rent subsidies to take the pressure off new businesses in their first year. The almost $153,000 in public investment leveraged over $545,000 in private investment and created dozens of jobs, many in neighborhood business districts.
 
STRATEGIC PLAN: “You’re experiencing a renaissance, but that rebirth is fragile.” That was the assessment of Atlanta-based consultant Garner Economics, which in July delivered a 59-page citywide economic development action plan that recommended ways to turn Covington’s recent economic momentum into long-term, sustainable growth. Among suggestions: Create a manufacturing “makerspace,” incentive programs aimed at recruiting talent, enhanced external marketing, developing more “cool vibe” class and B office space, hiring a business recruiter, and focusing on four industry targets - office jobs, life and biosciences, micro manufacturing and process technology, and the experiential and entrepreneurial economy.
 
ZONING REWRITE: Covington’s 18-month effort to transform an unwieldy, outdated and expensive Zoning Ordinance into a more user friendly neighborhood development code launched in 2019. The new code will recognize the City’s historic character and better communicate expectations for adaptive reuse, infill, and redevelopment. A steering committee of residents and stakeholders is working with Kendig Keast Collaborative on the effort.
 
FINANCE/BUDGET:
CREDIT RATING: Wall Street signaled its confidence in Covington’s leaders in March when Moody’s Investors Service upgraded the City’s credit rating and issued a “positive outlook” going forward. The agency cited material improvement in the City’s liquidity and reserve position because of stronger financial management, conservative budgeting, and strategic moves to better manage operations. City leaders aggressively sought the upgrade and said it would have practical and valuable impact: It would result in lower interest payments were Covington ever to use bonds to borrow money, and it improves the City’s reputation for financial stability and good public stewardship, which helps in business recruitment.
 
FINANCE REFORM: Among the evidence Moody’s cited in its decision was the City’s ongoing efforts to modernize, update, and reform its financial operations. In 2019, the Finance Department created a new debt management policy, strengthened its fund balance policy, adopted a 49-page Accounting Policies and Procedures Manual, and adopted a financial management ordinance. The City’s budget also continues to reap the benefits of an expanded investment policy created in 2018. The changes and the addition of staff within the Finance Department helped address some of deficiencies that auditors pointed out in the City’s financial reporting during their review of internal controls. “We want it to be evident and instantly clear to everyone that this is a professionally run department of the highest caliber that does things by the book to be good stewards of the taxpayers’ money,” Finance Director Muhammed Owusu said.
 
BUDGET: The City in June adopted a $110-million all-funds budget that was balanced, didn’t raise taxes, expanded the so-called Rainy Day Fund, and continued to fund core services like public safety, job creation, business recruitment, neighborhood support, housing, and upkeep of public infrastructure. City Manager David Johnston called it “the consummate ‘status quo’ budget - one that holds the line yet also defends the line.” ... this despite the loss of payroll tax revenue from the IRS’ departure, the added burden of extra pension payments to the State, the expiration of a federal grant that funded eight firefighters, and the continued diversion of growth revenue because of past economic deals.
 
INFRASTRUCTURE:
RIVERFRONT REMAKE: After years of planning and searching for funding at City Hall, Prus Construction in September began site work on the $6.54 million “crown jewel” phase of Riverfront Commons. The overall 2.7-mile project will transform the riverfront in Covington, with Phase II bringing a 1,350-seat amphitheater, two concrete paths totaling 2,800 feet, a cobblestone pier for paddlers and anglers, upgraded overlooks, and a redesigned cul-de-sac at the foot of Greenup Street.
 
TEXAS TURNAROUND: Covington officials worked with the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet in 2019 to push forward a plan to reduce accidents on the Brent Spence Bridge by changing where traffic from Fourth Street merges onto northbound Interstates 71/75. The plan, nicknamed “the Texas Turnaround,” would give drivers more time and space to merge and dramatically reduce backups on the troubled bridge.
 
INVITING STREETSCAPES: A $1.37 million infrastructure project designed to attract private economic investment by improving the “look” and “feel” of downtown got under way in fall 2019. The Sixth Street and Scott Boulevard Restoration Project, with work being done by Adleta Inc. construction, includes rebuilding sidewalks, moving utilities underground, and adding ADA ramps, decorative lamp posts, decorative brick pavement, streetscape trees, and new trash cans. Meanwhile, the City began the process of hiring firms to do design work related to similar streetscape projects on Seventh Street between Madison Avenue and Washington Street and on Madison Avenue between Eighth and 11th streets.
 
SIDEWALK AMENITIES: Covington’s sidewalks grew more organized and useful in 2019. The City used a federal grant to buy 235 black metal trash receptacles to replace most of the existing (and crumbling) concrete on street corners downtown and in neighborhood business districts. The City also gave permission to advocacy group Ride the Cov to install bike racks in front of popular attractions. By year’s end, 132 racks (funded by the Devou Good Project) had been installed, with 156 additional racks awaiting approval.

New sidewalks are part of the Sixth Street and Scott Boulevard Restoration Project that got under way in 2019.


NEIGHBORHOOD INVESTMENT:
Through its Neighborhood Services and Economic Development departments, Covington made a concerted effort to invest in its neighborhoods in 2019. Among the initiatives:
 
LOCAL GRANTS: A dozen projects earned funding during the first two rounds of a brand-new $60,000 Neighborhood Grant Program in 2019, including things like a music and soul food festival in Eastside, sidewalk planters in Latonia, a 4th of July parade in Peaselburg, and a water fountain in George Rogers Clark Park.
 
ANTI-EYESORES: City Hall in 2019 wrote formal guidelines for a new effort to return to productive use an array of vacant lots and abandoned houses it had accumulated in neighborhoods over the last few decades. By year’s end, houses were being built or designed on some of the almost dozen properties or so the City had sold or was selling, with more deals under way.
 
RIPPLE EFFECT: A new public-private program called The RIPPLE Effect yielded its first “winner”: A neighborhood-submitted plan called the Lewisburg Thorofare Project emerged from a months’ long competitive process to earn $300,000 in infrastructure improvements and a focused application of City services to jump-start a neighborhood business area. By year’s end, the project was being implemented and proposals were being accepted for a second round.
 
LEAD POISONING: The City won a $1.66 million federal grant that will be used to protect children from lead-based paint in older homes. The City expects to be able to “fix” about 58 homes or apartments over the next three years and is accepting applications, with remediation on the first residences to begin soon.
 
SLOWER TRAFFIC: In response to concerns about the volume and speed of through traffic in areas tightly packed with houses and parked cars, the City hired consultants to study whether to return traffic flow on sections of Greenup Street and Scott Boulevard to two-way. At year’s end, a decision had not been made.
 
NO BUTTS: Aiming to reduce sidewalk litter, the City joined with college students, Keep Covington Beautiful, local businesses, and neighborhood advocates to install 23 cigarette “stands” or “urns” in public areas, distribute pocket ashtrays, and start a publicity campaign against cast-off cigarette butts.
 
MARKET GARDENS: Community groups and budding urban farmers who grow vegetables, herbs, flowers, and other plants in Covington will now be able to sell their harvest on site as well, as the Board of Commissioners voted to allow so-called community gardens to become “market gardens,” with restrictions.
 
MISCELLANEOUS:
FUTURE OF PARKS & REC: The Parks & Recreation Division spent much of 2019 defining “fun.” Why? Because it was working with a consultant to write a master plan to guide how best to identify and invest in the facilities, activities, and sports that Covington families most often use. The initiative included a range of public engagement events and efforts. It’s ongoing.
 
PARKS IMPROVEMENT: The ongoing effort to renovate neighborhood parks, a few at a time, continued in 2019 with the completion (and renaming) of the new Peaselburg Park on Howell Street, the redesign of Barb Cook Park in Latonia, and the beginning of gathering public input on changes to Goebel Park.
 
RIVER TRAIL: In September, the City ceremonially cut a ribbon to close the books and signify the official completion of Phases II and III of the Licking River Greenway & Trails - a recreational trail system used by walkers, dog owners, bikers and hikers on the easternmost edge of Covington. As of now, the trail - actually “parallel” trails - includes about 0.75 miles of paved trail atop the levee and about 1.5 miles of a gravel “nature trail” that cuts through a narrow stretch of woods along the river’s edge. Including road infrastructure, the LRGT stretches 2.5 miles from its endpoints: Eastern Avenue and Levassor Place north to Randolph Park in Eastside, with a couple of access points in-between.
 
FACES AND NAMES: The seating of the newly elected City Commissioners last January (joining Mayor Joe Meyer were returnees Michelle Williams and Tim Downing, newcomer Shannon Smith, and out-of-retirement Denny Bowman) was just the beginning of personnel moves. Also in 2019: the hiring of Assistant City Manager Bruce Applegate, Zoning Administrator Dalton Belcher, and grant writer Meganne Robinson (a new position), and the promotion of Brian Valenti to assistant police chief (replacing the retiring Brian Steffen) and Greg Salmons to assistant fire chief (replacing the retiring Chris Kiely).
 
FIRE STATION: The City hired consulting firm Brandstetter Carroll Inc. to do the long-awaited fire facility study aimed at replacing and upgrading the outdated and undersized Engine Co. 2. Explained Fire Chief Mark Pierce: “Company 2 as it exists today doesn’t come close to meeting our needs, and whatever we recommend to the Commission will be based on hard data put together by the consultant,” The various parts of the study are being staggered so the Board of Commissioners can analyze data on things like fire runs, response times, traffic patterns, the demands of future growth, space and site requirements.
 
CIVIC CENTER: City Hall hasn’t had a permanent home in over 50 years, and the current rented space - a former JC Penney Department store on Pike Street - is too small and poorly designed for government operations. So a citizen task force working with a consultant hired with donated funds spent 10 months in a “thoughtful, theoretical, abstract conversation of what a City Hall means for this community.” Its report, released in September, said this: If and when the City one day builds a new center, it should be at a visible, accessible, and central site ... include space for regular community events and programming instead of being a “single-purpose fortress” dedicated only to government offices ... be a true civic commons with a place for community debate and demonstrations ... celebrate the City’s architectural diversity and history.
 
OPEN CONTAINERS: In May the City adopted a regulation that - during certain festivals and special events - would allow visitors to walk between establishments throughout parts of downtown with an open beer, cup of bourbon, or other alcohol. To “trigger” what’s called an Entertainment Destination Center zone, event organizers have to apply for a Special Events Permit. The EDC zone is similar to Fourth Street Live in Louisville and Maysville’s The Landing at Limestone.

The BLINK public art festival lit up downtown Covington and brought massive crowds to the city.

MASSIVE CROWDS: Two huge festivals brought massive crowds and international attention to Covington over two weekends in October 2019. The first event, Kentucky’s Edge, was an inaugural conference and festival focused on bourbon. Guests at the conference included nationally recognized distillers, experts, and authors. The second festival, BLINK, was a public art event straddling the river that used large-scale light projection to turn buildings into massive canvasses. With pedestrians walking throughout downtown to see the projection mappings and lit-up murals, not to mention attend music concerts, its four days by many accounts brought the biggest crowds in the history of the City. Organizers say from 1 million to 1.5 million people attended BLINK in Cincinnati and Covington.
 
RETURN OF TOUCH A TRUCK: For the second year in a row, families flocked to the parking lot in front of the Latonia Shopping Center for “Touch a Truck” - a free show-and-tell event that lets kids (and older people) climb on, in, and around public safety and service vehicles, as well as ask questions of the employees who operate the equipment on a daily basis. It featured fire trucks, backhoe, police cruisers and a riot-response vehicle, ambulances, river rescue boats, helicopters and the like.
 
WELCOMING: The City of Covington and City Hall took several steps to show its commitment to inclusivity and diversity in 2019. Once again, City leaders were active participants in the NKY Pride parade that wound through Covington’s streets and in the Pridefest that followed. As a sponsor of the first-ever NKY Pride Community Awards Celebration, Covington got the mic, and a City leader used the opportunity to urge other cities in the region to follow Covington’s lead and adopt a anti-discrimination “fairness ordinance.” By year’s end, several Campbell County cities did. ... In November, the nation’s largest LGBTQ advocacy group gave Covington high marks for how its laws, policies, and services treat LGBTQ people who live and work here - significantly raising the City’s “score” on group’s Municipal Equality Index. ... The City also announced its strong support for a program that will make photo ID cards available to immigrants and others who need them. The decision directed all City agencies to recognize what are called MARCC ID cards as a valid form of identification for the purposes of using government services or interacting with law enforcement or other public safety agencies. The cards will soon be issued by The Esperanza Latino Center of Northern Kentucky.
 
READ READY COVINGTON: The City’s early childhood literacy effort celebrated its one-year anniversary by announcing some impressive numbers: 3,709 children enrolled in literacy apps, 58,395 books read by those kids, 95,418 skill-based games completed, and 1,800 books passed out. Meanwhile, awareness of Read Ready Covington grew with posters in shopfront windows, several sets of alphabet signs spread out throughout Covington as part of a big scavenger hunt, and a mural.
 
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