Wanted: Dinner hosts for low-key IRS confabs

COVINGTON, Ky. - The next phase of Covington’s efforts to solicit the public’s ideas for the soon-to-be-vacant 23-acre IRS site is banking on two beliefs: 
  • Covington is blessed with smart, interesting, creative, articulate, and engaged people.
  • Conversation around dinner and drinks is more productive and inviting than it would be in a 200-seat assembly hall or a Facebook comment section. 
That’s the reasoning behind “Civic Dinners,” a trendy platform being used across the nation to encourage public discussions of issues and policy.
But for the concept to produce worthwhile discussion of the future of the IRS site, Covington needs people willing to step up and host dinners, either in their home or at a restaurant. The conversation is guided with questions, and the parameters are explained with a helpful “Host Guide.”
“It’s actually a lot less intimidating than it sounds,” Covington Economic Development Director Tom West said. “Dinners like these haven’t been used in a formal way around here before, but they’re a different and creative way to encourage the public to participate in a meaningful way. These are just focused dinner parties, and I’ve found that people in Covington like to engage.”
The consultant working with Covington to arrange the dinners (and co-incidentally, the entrepreneur who formalized the concept) said her firm has used the same basic formula to nurture discussions on topics from racial equity to transportation in areas from Atlanta to Auckland (that’s New Zealand).
The formula - “6 to 10 diverse guests, 3 big questions, equal time to share, 1 voice at a time” - serves as a format for the dinners, said Jenn Graham, co-founder and CEO of Civic Dinners, which is working with master consultant Cooper Carry on the IRS project.
“It works because people love food, they love to connect with their neighbors, and they’d rather talk around a table than in a larger setting,” Graham said. “Plus, people love to be part of a discussion bigger than themselves knowing they can help shape the future.”
She said the dinners are most productive - and fun - when attendees remember that “it’s a discussion, not a debate.”
Covington hopes to encourage at least 23 such small dinners (as a symbolic gesture, one for each of the site’s 23 acres), but officials say they’d gladly welcome more because that would provide more input, insight, and ideas about the IRS site.
After the dinners are held, Civic Dinners (the firm) will use emails and questionnaires to gather feedback on the prompted discussion and give it to Cooper Carry to factor into its work putting together a conceptual master plan for the site.
The City is encouraging hosts to schedule the dinners during the first two weeks of March (before then is fine, too) with all of them held by the end of March. Hosts can invite their own guests or let people sign up to attend.
At an open house kicking off the IRS study in late January, some two dozen people signed a list expressing interest in being a host, and Graham said those people will be contacted and invited to register as hosts.
The Civic Dinners are just one way the City is trying to tap public input on the future of the property.
About the site
The IRS, one of Covington’s biggest employers, announced in 2016 that it would close its processing facility in fall 2019 and eliminate about 1,600 jobs. The sprawling, one-story building itself takes up about 17 acres, with parking on an additional 6 acres. The complex is controlled by the federal General Services Administration.
The City hired Cooper Carry both to help it create a conceptual master plan for the 23-acre site and to acquire development rights from the federal government. City officials said it will take years to develop a plan and bring it to fruition.
The irregularly shaped property is bound by West Third Street, West RiverCenter Boulevard and Washington Street to the north; Madison Avenue to the east; West Fourth Street to the south; and the Clay Wade Bailey Bridge ramp and Johnson Street to the west. It is adjacent to the Northern Kentucky Convention Center and sits across the street from the Ohio River floodwall.
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