Day 5: Covington’s ‘emerging hot spots’

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City pursuing opportunities for development outside downtown

In honor of National Economic Development Week, May 7-12, Covington is calling attention to its aggressive efforts to work with its business community and other partners to generate jobs, attract investment and create a vibrant commercial and tourist economy. Today’s article focuses on “emerging hot spots” - areas outside of downtown where ongoing initiatives and efforts present opportunities for progress and change.

When Tom West looks at a map of Covington, he sees pockets of opportunity.
As director of the City’s Economic Development Department, he’s focused on turning that opportunity into visible, tangible progress.
Progress outside the normal areas.
“We’ve got a lot of things going on downtown and around MainStrasse Village, and obviously the size and concentration of that development has grabbed attention,” West said. “But Covington also has a number of smaller business districts, and there are interesting things taking hold there as well.
“We call these areas ‘emerging hot spots,’ and we’re looking hard at ways to create the same kind of buzz there that we have downtown.”
Here are some of those “hot spots”:
The Latonia neighborhood includes about a fourth of Covington’s geographic area and population. It also has a large shopping center and a business district with the look and feel of a downtown Main Street - not surprising given that Latonia was once its own incorporated city.
With Ritte’s Corner as the hub and Winston, Southern and Decoursey avenues as spokes, Latonia’s business district is seeing investment along those narrow strips, West said.
Early in 2017, the City took steps to encourage that investment:  
  • It tweaked its façade program to let developers there use a portion of their grants to prepare interior space for a tenant. 
  • It doubled the budget of its rent subsidy and façade incentives fund, which several new Latonia businesses used. 
  • It expanded the borders of its upper floor rehab program to include Ritte’s Corner, and now a project to rehab loft apartments is trying to get off the ground. 
  • And it partnered with the Latonia Business Association (LBA) to market available commercial property. 
The result: 17 vacant storefronts in Latonia gained tenants in 2017, including 13 new businesses and over $5.1 million in existing business expansions.
Among the new businesses were Grill of India, Kentucky Defense Services and M & J Groceries. Expansions included the large Blair Technology Group and Davon Auto & Sales in the Boron Drive area.
Tom Mitchell, who works for T&W Printing and is vice president of the 64-member LBA, said the feeling of energy and activity is palpable. “It might be slow in coming, but it’s definitely coming,” he said.
(For information about the LBA, CLICK HERE.)
Mitchell noted several encouraging signs: 
  • Lines of people stretching outside the new evening bakery, Moonrise Doughnuts, and the social media celebration that erupted when Emerson’s Bakery opened last year in the historic Latonia Bakery location. 
  • Over 5,000 people attended the first Unlock the Block party at Ritte’s Corner last year. A sequel is planned in July. 
  • The LBA has the ear of City Hall, with a liaison from the City on its board and Mayor Joe Meyer often speaking at its monthly meetings. 
  • The LBA has a branding effort under way and is updating its community map. 
“There’s a lot of activity in Latonia’s business district, and in the coming year we hope to expand on that,” said Suzann Gettys, the LBA’s liaison who works for Covington as a Specialist in Business Retention & Expansion.
“It’s not a surge yet,” West added, “but it will definitely be interesting to see where all this leads.”
Furthermore, the City has re-opened conversations with the owners of the Latonia Shopping Center to talk about the future of the center and how to make it more vibrant, City Manager David Johnston said. “It’s early,” he stressed.

 Ritte's Corner in Latonia.

Roebling Point 

Back in February 2009, the Covington City Commission added a five-block area just east and south of the Kenton County courthouse to the Ohio Riverside Historic Preservation Overlay Zone.
On paper, the designation protected the historic character of the area’s buildings. But it also solidified the area’s identity and pinpointed it as worthy of investment and entertainment-related spending.
Today, Roebling Point and surrounding streets are a popular bar and restaurant district with a roster that includes many new establishments: Blinkers Tavern, Smoke Justis, Keystone Bar & Grill, The Gruff, Molly Malone’s Irish Pub and Restaurant and Roebling Point Books & Coffee, not to mention the Roebling Row event space.
The area depends upon a vibrant walkable environment, and much is happening to increase foot traffic.
On nearby Scott Boulevard, nine townhomes worth $320,000 to $530,000 each opened recently in a rehabbed historic building called The Boone Block, and a similar project called The Bradford Building will soon add five condos and five commercial spaces.
They join the nearby Ascent at Roebling’s Bridge, and other condo and apartment projects are in the works.
On a larger scale, the pending move of Kenton County government offices to the Bavarian Brewery site when that renovation is complete in spring 2019 will free up the 10-floor administration building at 303 Court St. The county’s contract with its development team calls for the building to be turned into market-rate apartments. Additional floors may be added to provide parking, according to reports.
Roebling Point is also routinely used for block parties and events like the Covington Farmers Market, which brings in hundreds of people every Saturday morning.
Within walking distance of the Northern Kentucky Convention Center, RiverCenter and Madison Avenue, Roebling Point will continue to benefit from housing and business activity in the area, West said.

The Covington Farmers Market in the Roebling Point district.

20th Street Corridor
Among Covington’s 19 established neighborhoods are “the Eastern 4.”
Leaders of Wallace Woods, Austinburg, Helentown and Levassor Park have recently banded together to begin a formal dialogue with City Hall. Their hope is to bring lasting energy and activity to what’s called the 20th Street Corridor, which stretches from Madison Avenue east to Providence Pavilion, the nursing-home facility that opened in the old St. Elizabeth North hospital building.
The discussions emerged from a vision initiative the historic neighborhoods have been working on, with the intent being to create a more walkable environment and a more active business district, said Alex Koenig, Zoning Development Specialist with the City.
“It could follow the model and trajectory of the Linden Gateway district,” Koenig said, referring to the area surrounding the west end of ML King Jr. Boulevard/12th Street.
West said the City is looking at how it can bring services, resources and policy changes to the mix, including things like business development incentives, increased code enforcement, zone changes and traffic pattern changes to Greenup Avenue and Scott Boulevard.
“Again, we don’t know where this will end up, but these are interesting conversations and we have ready, willing and committed partners in the neighborhoods,” West said. “That’s a huge plus.”
The Linden Gateway
Two huge events in the past decade changed the future of one of the western gateways to Covington, the exit from Interstate 75 to ML King Jr. Boulevard/12th Street.
One was the widening of the thoroughfare, which is one of the City’s busiest east-west corridors. And the other was the opening of the new St. Elizabeth Medical Center Covington.
Now comes a third event: the transformation of the nearby Bavarian Brewery site into a new Kenton County administration building.
“Together, these changes present huge opportunities for us and the neighborhood,” Mayor Meyer said, “and we must seize the opportunity to build off and guide those changes.”
Site work is underway and the county administration building could open as soon as spring 2019, said Sara Sgantas, Digital Communications Coordinator for Kenton County Fiscal Court.
The campus will include renovation of the historic brewery building as well as construction of a new, five-story building. It will become a “one-stop shop” for county government services, Sgantas said.
(For more information about the Kenton County project, CLICK HERE.)
Much is already happening along ML King Jr. Boulevard, much of it involving the Center for Great Neighborhoods, a city­wide meeting and training center that support residents’ efforts to improve their neighborhoods. Since 2016, CGN has operated out of the Hellmann Creative Center, a former lumber mill whose renovation won awards and has become a hub for creative activity.
CGN is working to develop a neighborhood plaza near the Hellmann Creative Center.
And on April 24, CGN was selected by the Covington City Commission as the “preferred developer” for an entire block of city-owned frontage on the north side of ML King Jr. Boulevard, between Banklick Street and Holman Avenue. The Center plans a mixed-use development including both commercial and residential spaces.
(To learn about CGN, CLICK HERE).
Independent of the Center has come several small businesses in the area, including Gutierrez Deli and Wunderbar restaurant and bar.
As the county building is completed, the City will be searching for opportunities to encourage investment related to the administration building or to the medical center, such as professional offices, doctors’ offices and allied health-related offices, West said.

The Hellmann Creative Center

South Covington
By far Covington’s largest neighborhood is South Covington, which encompasses almost the entire section of the City south of Banklick Creek.
While primarily residential with an industrial zone along Ky. 17, a small business district at the intersection of Ky. 17 and Hands Pike presents room for investment, West said.
That’s because the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet is in the early stages of realigning Hands Pike south of the current location.
Over $8 million has been set aside for construction in fiscal year 2019, a local highway official said. But the anticipated start of construction in 2020 will depend upon completion of an environmental study this fall and right-of-way acquisition, which itself could take 18 months, that official said.
Two years ago the City approved changing the zoning of a large chunk of land near the new road to allow commercial use. “We’ll see what opportunities arise,” West said.