Reconnecting to the river

Officials from the City and Prus Construction did a walk-through of the Covington Plaza space this week.

With floating restaurants a failed experiment,

The Cov’s new plaza space represents new philosophy

COVINGTON, Ky. – The sun was shining but the air reeked of frustration and failure.

It was June 17, 1994 – and barge workers on the Covington riverfront had just broken the handle of a sledgehammer, unsuccessfully pried with a massive wrench, and finally tapped the strength of a massive crane to loosen the last of 48 bolts that fastened the Spirit of America steamship replica to its mooring at the foot of Scott Boulevard.

Only a few curious people – and one newspaper reporter – were on hand as towboats slowly eased the Spirit from the upright “dolphins” anchored to the muddy bottom and slowly disappeared toward Missouri.

What the onlookers didn’t recognize was that they were witnessing the first cracks in the crumbling of an era.

Through the late 1980s and early ’90s, the vision of a riverfront lined with floating restaurants and entertainment had wowed Covington with neon lights and optimistic dreams.

But that excitement was fleeting, and the reality proved quite different. What began with such promise was soon weighed down by debt, bankruptcy, and misunderstandings of market demand, as well as the harsh vagaries of an unpredictable river, whose relentless current and periodic floods deposited driftwood and mud, split welded seams and caused leaks, carried away gangplanks, and tore away moorings.

To be sure, the end of the riverboat restaurant dream would be agonizingly long and torturous. But when the last floating complex was crushed by a runaway barge, its sinking was almost anti-climactic.


That failed experience explains why, today, City officials say the all-but-finished $6.5 million phase II of Riverfront Commons – and specifically the space known as Covington Plaza – represents not only a dramatic physical transformation but also a core shift in Covington’s relationship with its riverfront and a new philosophy of public access.

“It’s difficult to convey the magnitude of what this project represents to Covington,” said Ken Smith, the City’s Neighborhood Services Director. “For a long time, we were either blocking the river or trying to tame it. Going forward, the City is embracing its riverfront and giving residents more opportunities to access and appreciate its beauty.”

This week, members of Covington’s Public Works and Neighborhood Services departments met with project managers from Prus Construction to do a “punch list” walk-through of the site. Prus will spend the next week or two on final touches, such as filling in the gaps on landscaping, cleaning up gravel and mud, and staining and sealing the poured concrete.

The project is actually a piece of Covington’s contribution to the Riverfront Commons plan proposed by the regional organization Southbank Partners some 20 years ago. The goal is to link six river cities with an uninterrupted 11.5-mile hiking and biking path stretching from Fort Thomas to Ludlow.

In Covington, the completed Riverfront Commons will be about 2.7 miles long. The next section is currently out for bid and will extend the current path from the floodgate on Highway Avenue to Hathaway Court.

Phase II, often called the “crown jewel” section, stretches from Greenup Street to just west of the Madison Overlook, encompassing the former Covington Landing space as well as a previously inaccessible weedy and muddy shoreline. It includes:

  • A 1,350-seat amphitheater where crowds can watch musicians and others perform, where festivals will be held, and where people can sit and eat lunch, similar to Cincinnati’s Serpentine Wall.
  • Two concrete paths – totaling 2,800 feet -- used by walkers, bicyclists, and runners to travel either along the water’s edge or along the floodwall murals. The paths link to a concrete path on the west side of RiverCenter.
  • A “pier” underneath the Suspension Bridge where paddlers can launch kayaks and canoes.
  • Upgraded overlooks at the foot of Madison Avenue and Scott Street.

Festivals & productions

Smith said the City is planning a formal grand opening event in June. But already the Covington Plaza space is being used and programmed: The Carnegie will hold 10 performances of the “I Got Rhythm” dance and music production there this weekend, following up on “George Remus: A New Musical” that was held April 30-May 1. (Tickets are available HERE.)

In addition, organizers this morning announced the three-day FedEx Rockin Taco Festival to be held June 25-27. It will feature an array of vendors with creative renditions of tacos and Latin music and dance. (See HERE for details.)

Other festivals will be announced soon.

But as exciting as those events are, Smith said he expected even more people to simply come to the Commons space on a day-to-day basis to sit and watch the river, eat lunch, hike, bike, and take pictures. Currently, people who want to watch the river have only one place to go – the scattered benches along Riverside Drive.

“Planners like to talk about ‘activation’ of spaces, and we think the public’s use and activity at Covington Plaza will very much carry out the goal of that word,” he said.

The informality and mostly scheduled nature of the public’s use will differ greatly from the vision that, in the 1990s, inspired floating restaurants up and down the river.

At one point, a veritable flotilla of floating complexes was moored on the Ohio River from its confluence with the Licking River west to the Clay Wade Bailey Bridge.

Covington Landing

The biggest was Covington Landing, a conglomeration of restaurants, nightclubs, and retail shops stretching three football fields long whose main access came via gangplanks at the Madison and Scott overlooks. Shortly before the complex opened in August 1990, The Kentucky Post described it as a “family-oriented entertainment mosaic crafted from historic bits of riverboat memorabilia, colorful theme-park tiles and specks of nightlife glitter.”

It had three parts: The Spirit of America housed the upscale Stobart’s and Steamboat’s Steakhouse, Belle’s River Saloon, jazz and Dixieland music at the Moon River Café, and other features. The Wharf – a multi-level barge made to look like a San Francisco-style ocean port – housed places like City Lights dance club, the Howl-At-The-Moon Saloon, The Sand Bar rooftop patio, T.G.I. Friday’s, and Sweet Charlotte’s. The Showboat Sensation, made to look like an old-time showboat, has a 136-seat theater playing a historical diorama. BB Riverboats moored its cruise vessels on the western end of the dock.

But the excitement wouldn’t last.

Business suffered under a sluggish economy and mistaken ideas about what customers wanted. Themes were changed and changed again.

All the while, the Ohio’s relentless current, debris carried by floodwaters, and runaway boats and barges hammered at the various complexes.

In 1994, bankruptcy claimed the Spirit, and it was sold and dragged away.

Three years later, the City itself would buy The Wharf in a desperate attempt to save it, but the City would be forced later to sell the complex for the cost of the metal that could be salvaged. Ironically, The Wharf would sink a few days after being towed away from Covington in 2006.

To the east, The iconic Mike Fink closed for repairs in 2008 and never reopened.

And to the west, The Waterfront restaurant and complex – whose owners boasted of serving everybody from NBA legend Michael Jordan to the King of Jordan to Margaret Thatcher – broke away from its moorings and closed in 2011. In 2014, the closed complex was hit by a barge and sank.

Jay Fossett, who was Covington’s city manager in 2005-09, said he was informed on his second day on the job that The Wharf – which the City then owned – was leaking. He soon found himself below the waterline in its “grungy, dirty and nasty” hull, inspecting the cracks.

By that point, the City was tired of the whole ordeal.

“You’ve heard that famous adage about the two happiest days in a boat owner’s life being the day they buy their boat and the day they sell it?” Fossett asked a couple of days ago. “That was our experience with floating restaurants in Covington.”

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A photo from the early ‘90s shows Covington Landing. At left is the Spirit of America, the blue-painted complex is The Wharf. Note only one RiverCenter tower, no Ascent at Roebling Point, no convention center expansion, no IRS Gateway Center, no Embassy Suites, no Madison Place. (The Kentucky Post photo used courtesy of the Kenton County Public Library.)