Economic goal: Strategic growth, citywide

This picture of the IRS, surrounded by the black wrought-iron fence, shows the proximity of the 23-acre site to the RiverCenter complex (in the background).

COVINGTON, Ky. - The Covington City Commission moved forward Tuesday night with three studies designed to ensure that economic development proceeds in a strategic, sustainable, and unfaltering manner whose benefit is felt citywide. 

At its regularly scheduled legislative meeting, the Commission voted 5-0 to: 
  • Negotiate a contract with an Atlanta-based firm to help Covington both legally enable the development of the 23-acre Internal Revenue Service site and create a master plan for development that attracts jobs and offsets the payroll tax revenue that will be lost when the IRS facility shuts down next year. 
  • Start the process of finding a consultant who will help the City write a data-driven citywide economic development strategy. 
  • Evaluate whether changing traffic patterns on sections of Greenup Street and Scott Boulevard - two of the City’s busiest north-south corridors - would encourage investment in neighborhoods and local business districts. 
Collectively, the studies should send a strong signal to residents and businesses alike that Covington wants economic momentum to accelerate throughout the entire City - not just in the urban core - and that a one-size-fits-all plan will not accomplish that task, Economic Development Director Tom West said.
“The IRS site is attracting national attention and will require a lot of staff time and energy given its size and the tax revenue it produces,” West said. “But we also have some great opportunities in pockets throughout Covington, and we must be both strategic and deliberate in figuring out ways to unleash the potential of those areas.”
The IRS site
Technically, the IRS study is called the Central Covington Riverfront District redevelopment effort, since it will focus on integrating the 23 acres into the surrounding area.
Covington plans to contract with Cooper Carry, a global architecture and design firm that was one of 11 firms to answer a request for bids issued in January. The firm has assembled a team of partners, including an agency experienced in working with the federal government to transfer ownership of former IRS properties.
Its submitted presentation was selected as the best and most balanced with the help of a panel of almost a dozen Covington business and neighborhood organizations and City staff, City Manager David Johnston said.
Cooper Carry’s qualifications will be available at this link, HERE, in the next couple of days.
The IRS, one of Covington’s biggest employers, announced in 2016 that it would close down the processing facility next fall, given the trend toward electronic tax filing, and eliminate about 1,630 jobs in the City.
The projected loss of payroll tax revenue is about $1.2 million a year, Johnston said, and replacing that revenue is a priority.
“We have no preconceived notions of what should go there - we want the community to help figure that out,” Johnston said. “But we’d like the eventual development to play off and tie together the many nearby features, and it has to integrate with at least five different neighborhoods that it touches.”
The site -- bounded by West Rivercenter Boulevard to the north and Fourth Street to the south -- is adjacent to the Northern Kentucky Convention Center, sits a block from the Ohio River and the RiverCenter complex, is just north of the Mutter Gottes neighborhood, and is several blocks east and north of MainStrasse Village.
“It’s viewed by many in the commercial development business as one of the most unique and sizable redevelopment opportunities between Baltimore and New Orleans - so it’s on the radar screen for developers,” Johnston told the Mayor and Commissioners earlier this month.
But Johnson cautioned that it will be years before the site is developed, given the long process of closing the facility, mothballing the building, transferring ownership, designing a project, and actually building it.
Money for the contract was set aside in the budget passed in June.
Economic development strategy
The Commission also voted to advertise for proposals from firms to help write a citywide strategy. The goal wouldn’t be to write detailed plans for any specific area but to create an overarching strategy for business attraction, retention, expansion, and entrepreneurial support.
The work would include creating an economic and demographic profile of Covington; analyzing current policies, incentives, funding resources, and other tools; engaging stakeholders; and identifying specific sectors of business to target.
Too often the City and its partners suffer from “squirrel syndrome,” being easily distracted or consumed by the latest project to the detriment of overall progress, West said.
“It’s because we lack an overall strategy,” he said. “There is not a clearly defined vision nor an authoritative set of goals.”
Those distractions in particular tend to leave neighborhood business districts neglected, West said.
Specific questions to be answered are: 
  • How can the City leverage the energy stemming from unprecedented investment in its northern area to realize development potential elsewhere in the City?
  • What sectors should Covington focus on attracting in terms of jobs and investments?
  • What existing tools - such as incentives and policies - should be modified, eliminated or expanded, and what new tools are needed to attract jobs and investment?
  • Where should the City focus its time and resources to retain businesses and help them expand?
  • What should the City’s relationship with its many partners look like? 
“We aren’t seeking a development plan but a strategy,” West said.
Money for the study was included in the budget passed in late June.
Traffic study
The Commission also voted to contract with Planning Development Services of Kenton County for $25,503.25 to study the impact of converting to two-way traffic the sections of Scott and Greenup between 20th Street and ML King Jr. Boulevard/12th Street.
The cost consists of two parts - $21,400 for mobility analysis and traffic counts, which PDS would sub-contract for, and $4,093.25 for GIS and planning services, which would go to PDS. (The actual value of PDS’ work is much higher, but PDS offers its member agencies a 75 percent discount.)
On its face, the contract is for a traffic study, but the intent is much more complex, West said.
The study is an outgrowth of a formal, ongoing dialogue between the City and members of “the Eastern 4” neighborhoods - Wallace Woods, Austinburg, Helentown, and Levassor Park.
Neighborhood leaders banded together at the beginning of the year in an effort to bring lasting energy and activity to what’s called the 20th Street Corridor, which stretches from Madison Avenue east to The Pavilion at Kenton, the nursing-home facility that opened in the old St. Elizabeth North hospital building.
“At certain times of the day, those streets now resemble a NASCAR track,” West said. “The theory is that two-way traffic is safer and thus more conducive to higher quality of life and quality of place, therefore encouraging investment in the neighborhoods. We want to create a walkable, bikeable environment where neighborhood businesses could flourish and homeowners would make improvements to their houses, property values would increase, and new residents would want to rehab abandoned and dilapidated buildings.”
The study would begin this month and end in February 2019.
“Two-way traffic may or may not be the answer, but we’re committed to working with the Eastern 4 to study all options,” West said. “We appreciate that they’re so engaged in energizing their part of Covington.”
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