Cookouts and conversations

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Thursday event part of effort to ‘activate’ eastern half of city
 
COVINGTON, Ky. – The City’s economic development team is packing up and moving its operations to Austinburg Neighborhood Park on Thursday for a cookout and conversations it hopes lead to something big: Increased business activity, jobs, and local investment in an area it calls “the Eastern Corridor.”
 
“Covington is riding a huge wave of momentum right now, and we want to make sure all communities benefit from the energy we’re seeing in the downtown core right now,” Economic Development Director Tom West said. “But that will take focused engagement within the community.”
 
The boots-on-the-ground approach is a function of the overall goal: The City wants to empower and enable entrepreneurs, existing commercial property owners, and others within the community so they benefit first-hand from the new investment and jobs.
 
The cookout starts about noon and will include hot dogs, drinks, music, and cornhole.
 
But the “conversations” will – hopefully – last all day. From 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., tables will be staffed by members of the Economic Development Department and of the City’s partner in the initiative, the non-profit community organizer called The Center for Great Neighborhoods of Covington. The park is at 15th Street and Eastern Avenue.
 
“We’re inviting everyone – neighborhood businesses, entrepreneurs, owners of vacant commercial properties, community stakeholders – to come out and hear about City programs, tools, and resources that can help them fix up their property, get their property rented, assist their business, or bring amenities to the neighborhood,” Assistant Economic Development Director Ross Patten said.
 
“These things take a long time, redevelopment projects always do, but we want this to be an engaging process,” he added. “A lot of our growth has been very grassroots, that’s the cool part about Covington – we want to work with anyone who wants to make improvements to their property and do good stuff.”
 
The Eastern Corridor
The all-day Thursday event builds upon a larger initiative to bring energy, jobs, and opportunities to the Eastern Corridor – a loosely defined area bounded by Bush Street to the north, 21st Street to the south, Madison Avenue to the west, and the Licking River to the east. It includes all or part of four neighborhoods: Austinburg, Eastside, Helentown, and Wallace Woods.
 
It’s an implementation of an “activation plan” West presented to the Covington Board of Commissions earlier this summer to turn the City’s attention southward toward the Eastern Corridor.
 
Downtown Covington, largely north of 12th Street, has been fertile ground for businesses and investments and has seen robust development.
 
Patten says there are numerous reasons for that growth: “You have more real estate products, anchors, location, and amenities,” he said. “From an economic development standpoint, we’ve pushed the needle forward and the private sector is making projects happen there.”
 
Meanwhile, parts of the eastern area of the city struggle to overcome challenges related to poverty, low property values, less home ownership, vacant commercial buildings, and high demand for police service.
 
Projects in motion
But there are promising signs: 
  • A vacant building at Pleasant and Greenup streets now houses Bean Haus Bakery & Café, a new small business that has hired nearby residents.
  • M&M Service Station Equipment Specialist is renovating an existing property on 15th Street to house its new headquarters, and it too has committed to filling jobs from the community when it can.
  • With the help of a façade loan, an old corner store on Eastern Avenue is being turned into apartments and commercial space.
  • And the City is working behind the scenes with The Center for Great Neighborhoods and others to find tenants and create opportunities at the former St. Elizabeth Hospital complex.  Only 50,000 square feet of the historic landmark’s 300,000 square feet is currently being used. The Center received a $26,000 grant from Duke Energy for pre-development activities on the building’s fifth floor, which boasts stellar views of the northern area of Covington. 
What to do with the St. Elizabeth complex is just one topic Patten expects to come up Thursday. Other topics include Covington Parks & Rec’s call for ideas on how to renovate Austinburg Park, improving the 11th Street gateway into Covington from Newport, updates on converting Scott and Greenup streets to two-way traffic, and neighborhood enhancement projects.
 
Later this fall, Economic Development hopes to unveil some new workforce training initiatives that it hopes will appeal to residents of Austinburg, Eastside, Helentown, Wallace Woods, as well as other neighborhoods in Covington.
 
Engagement
For the Eastern Corridor initiative to succeed, officials from The Center for Great Neighborhoods said public engagement will be a key component in and of itself.
 
“This is an important partnership between The Center and the City where we are both able to bring together our own independent strengths and resources for positive change in these neighborhoods,” said Shannon Ratterman, program director for community development with The Center.
 
“More specifically,” she said, “one of our most important drivers will be listening to and involving the residents of the neighborhoods to hear what they love about their community that we can build on, and where they see challenges that we can address together.”
 
Efforts to connect with the community kicked off earlier this summer with a boots-on-the ground tour of the area.
 
“We basically walked in grids and took an inventory of existing businesses and commercial properties,” Patten said. “There’s a strong church network in the neighborhood, so we took an inventory of the churches as well.”
 
The City then mailed invites to people and addresses on that inventory list to the Thursday event and a follow-up that will happen Sept. 24.
 
West said he and his staff had received a flurry of responses.
 
“We want to make sure that we’re engaging people on a variety of fronts and invite them to be part of the conversation,” Patten said.
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