‘A fragile rebirth’

Tailored strategy gives Covington an economic blueprint
COVINGTON, Ky. - A 73-minute presentation on Covington’s strengths and weaknesses - and how the City can transform recent economic momentum into long-term, sustainable growth - left leaders “blown away” Tuesday night by the Covington-specific detail and recommendations.
“There are a lot of truths in this report and analysis - a lot of hard truths in some places, as far as the challenges,” Covington Mayor Joe Meyer told Jay Garner of Atlanta-based Garner Economics. “We have to invest in ourselves, and your report justifies that.”
The City hired Garner in December 2018 to create a multi-year, citywide economic development strategy that would both take into account the Covington market and propel the City into more high-value, attainable, and sustainable growth.
At the Covington City Commission meeting on Tuesday night, the economic development and strategy firm discussed both the 59-page report, called “From Opportunity to Action,” and a supporting 98-page document called “Competitive Realities.”
“You’re experiencing a renaissance, but that rebirth is fragile,” Garner told the Commission. “Covington has a unique vibe - it’s working. This seeks to build on that.”
Garner, who has 39 years’ experience in his field, apologized for the length of the presentation but said he wanted officials to understand the thoroughness of the analysis and the data behind it.
He and colleague Cindy Dancy, the firm’s director of research, took turns describing the City’s strengths and weaknesses, Garner’s efforts to interact with local residents and business officials, the four areas or “sectors” in which Covington should concentrate its efforts to create jobs and attract businesses, and 12 specific recommendations for actions City leaders could take to strengthen its business climate.
Among the recommendations:
  • Create a manufacturing “makerspace,” or collaborative workspace, where entrepreneurs can operate.
  • Develop financial incentive programs to recruit talent to Covington.
  • Continue efforts to develop the soon-to-be vacant IRS site, office space and other “real estate product.”
  • Consider bringing building permits and inspections back under City control.
  • Update incentive tools and expand the City’s economic development staff to emphasize business recruitment.
  • Work with Gateway Community and Technical College to better use the college’s significant vacant space.
  • Enhance external outreach and marketing. 
‘Optimal targets’:
In what areas should Covington spend its time and resources attracting jobs and new businesses?
Citing the City’s unique competitive advantages in certain areas and the short-term “feasibility” of efforts, the report identified three industry sectors that should represent core business targets and areas of potentially significant growth. It also identified a fourth target area that would enhance Covington’s quality of place and entrepreneurial activities, directly linked to talent attraction and retention.
Garner noted that all four targets honor and acknowledge the need for flexibility required by the growing “gig” economy, referring to the use of temporary or freelance works to perform jobs or “gigs.”
The three sectors:
  • “All Things Office” (& New Collar Jobs) seeks to build on the local concentration of financial service operations and design industries, and the proximity to the airport and the Cincinnati office market.
  • “A Healthier You” (Life and Bioscience) builds off of Covington’s assets in health sciences and research, including the headquarters of the global clinical trial firm CTI, the Northern Kentucky Life Sciences Training Center, the incubator bioLOGIC and Bexion Pharmaceuticals.
  • “Made in the COV” (Micro Manufacturing & Process Technology) focuses on manufacturing operations with a small footprint and niche products, such as the wrist ID and apparel maker Road ID, and builds off the City’s manufacturing heritage and infrastructure. 
The fourth target:
  • “Experiencing Covington” (the Experiential and Entrepreneurial Economy) seeks to add local and unique boutique retail along with other establishments that emphasize the character of Covington and build off the “robust support ecosystem” for startups. 
The City’s Economic Development Project Manager, Ross Patten, said it was reassuring to see how the Garner report tailored its target sectors to Covington’s strengths, rather than regurgitating the same targets used in business strategies across the nation.
“They didn’t try to shoehorn Covington into a template but rather took the time to learn about our city and what makes our economy strong and unique,” said Patten, who ran the strategic initiative from Covington’s end. “That gives us confidence in the analysis.”
Examining Covington through the eyes of a professional site selector, various parts of the reports analyzed the city’s “assets” and “challenges” as compared to benchmark areas and determined by trends.
Among the strengths: Central location and access to markets, high broadband availability, proximity to numerous higher education institutions, a strong entrepreneurial environment, City incentive programs, availability of venture capital for startups and low-interest loans for small businesses, a low cost of living, low crime rates, availability of restaurants and hotel space, recreational opportunities, a low median age for residents, average wages.
Among the challenges: lack of Class A & B office space and “flex” sites and buildings, low test scores in the school district, the high poverty rate, onerous business permitting procedures, high taxes, low household income, the condition of streets, and loss of population in recent Census counts.
Garner said he identified 22 “assets,” 12 “neutral” factors and 9 “challenges.”
“This is a great ratio,” he said. But officials should realize that any one of the nine negatives could be one that causes a company not to look at the City, he cautioned.
What’s next:
Mayor Meyer said the Commission will digest the report and decide later in August whether to formally adopt it.
He pointed out the heavy public engagement that helped Garner Economics develop and support its analysis and thanked the numerous stakeholders who donated time and offered insight.
As part of its “discovery” phase, the firm worked with a local steering committee to conduct four focus groups with 41 key community stakeholders, an online survey to which 117 responded, and 10 in-depth one-on-one interviews with top business officials.
“This might wind up being the City’s economic development strategy,” Meyer said, “but it really represents the community’s economic development strategy.”
Economic Development Director Tom West said the plan has already proven valuable as a guidance tool.
To help his department be more active in identifying and pursuing new jobs and businesses (instead of being reactive), the City Commission allocated money in the recently passed budget for a new recruitment specialist. And his staff has worked with outside agencies to develop soon-to-be-available marketing tools.
West said he was encouraged by the many stakeholder groups who gave input to Garner and attended Tuesday night’s presentation, including officials from Tri-ED, REDI Cincinnati, Renaissance Covington, The Catalytic Fund of Northern Kentucky, Southbank Partners, and the Covington Economic Development Authority.
“It was amazing how many people came up to me after the presentation or called me today and said, ‘we want to support the City - how can we help?’ ”
Consultant Jay Garner, in the middle of his 73-minute report that Mayor Joe Meyer said contained "hard truths."
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