2 years later, ‘RIPPLE’ felt in Lewisburg

New sidewalks and updated storefronts are among the changes made to the bend of Pike Street near Montague Street as part of the City’s first The RIPPLE Effect proposal that started at Herb & Thelma’s Tavern.

Partnership spurs street improvements, new business

(Part 2 of 2: The RIPPLE Effect program was created in fall 2018 to coordinate public and private investments and energy and focus those on a proverbial corner of Covington. Yesterday we featured the proposal in the Botany Hills neighborhood that emerged from the second competitive process this fall. Today we write about progress in implementing the first RIPPLE Effect proposal in Lewisburg.)

COVINGTON, Ky. – Fresh blacktop gave an alley a smoother surface. Sidewalks were rebuilt along the main drag. And private investors purchased buildings and gave them facelifts with funding help from the City.

Before you knew it, a transformation was afoot in the bend on the well-traveled Pike Street in Lewisburg, evidence of a program – a momentum – that’s otherwise known as the “RIPPLE Effect.”

The progress is testament to what can happen when partnerships – in this case, one between the City and a community group – emerge to create energy, jobs, and local engagement.

Covington’s RIPPLE Effect program, an acronym that stands for “Revitalization Includes People, Places, Lifestyles (and) Economic investment,” was designed to jump-start improvements outside the Covington’s Central Business District.

The grant invests City dollars in a public-private neighborhood project. Community groups or councils, neighborhood associations, organizations that represent neighborhood businesses, or business interests can present a proposal to the City and vie for selection.

After the program was announced in 2018, Lewisburg received the inaugural RIPPLE grant in 2019 and was awarded $300,000 in City-funded infrastructure improvements, plus help securing some Small Business Program incentives.

“Lewisburg’s RIPPLE is a great example of how we can leverage public and private investment,” said Jeremy Wallace, federal grants manager with Covington’s Neighborhood Services Department. “For example, we were able to complete much-needed sidewalk and curb improvements with the public improvement funds.” 

The Lewisburg proposal focused on the business district/node at the bend of West Pike Street near Montague Road and Western Avenue, mostly known for Herb & Thelma’s Tavern and Be Concerned: The People’s Pantry. The proposal was known as its “Thorofare Project.”

“It’s 100 percent great,” said John Pauly, who was among a group of friends and investors who presented the Lewisburg proposal.

Where everybody knows your name

It’s no stretch to say that the grant proposal was built around a little tavern’s success.

Joe Fessler spent 25 years in the food business before he and his wife, Suzanne, purchased the curious-shaped sliver of a building long known as Herb & Thelma’s Tavern in 2015. The Fesslers kept the name, the menu, and even the previous owners’ son Chip Boehmker, a beloved figure who flips a fine burger.

The Fesslers gave the building a new façade and made other improvements, in the process attracting attention from Cincinnati Magazine and City Beat and Kentucky Educational Television (KET)’s Local Traveler segment of “Best Burgers in the Bluegrass.”

“We’re sitting there in the middle of this oasis down here in Lewisburg,” Fessler said. “Herb & Thelma’s has been here for almost 85 years – it’s always been a mainstay in the neighborhood through good and bad.”

To Fessler and his friends, the tavern’s success implied that a wider net of improvements could – and should – be cast, especially by increasing walkability and filling vacant buildings.

“The cool thing about the RIPPLE grant is that we built the proposal around the idea that we have this nice community pub here, so why don’t we do more?” Pauly said. “It was really driven by Herb & Thelma’s – by Joe and some of his high school buddies talking about how they could make Lewisburg great.”

Those “buddies” – Fessler, Pauly, Tom Schuh, and Steve Ginter – agreed that the stretch of Lewisburg at Montague and West Pike warranted enhancements, and they were willing to make their own investments if the City partnered with them.

“We thought about buying properties and upgrading the area,” Pauly said. “Then Be Concerned got involved and said, ‘Hey, what can we do in conjunction with this?’ We all wanted to make the area more walkable.”

They put together a proposal that envisioned a “Gateway to Covington” built around a revitalized Herb and Thelma’s, the community services provided by Be Concerned, and the passion of the Lewisburg residents. They proposed a solidified private group commitment to take immediate action and increase investment in Lewisburg.

That scope of private investment pushed the Lewisburg proposal to the top for City officials who scored four submitted proposals in the first competitive RIPPLE Effect process.

“It was a great opportunity to join the forces of the City, local businesses and neighbors, and John Pauly and Tom Schuh,” said Andy Brunsman, executive director of the non-profit Be Concerned. “The Ripple Grant showed the community-mindedness of our City, as well as the commitment to making our area the best it can be for all those who drive, walk, or bike through it.”

The ripples spread

True to the program’s name, the upgrades to sidewalks and alley helped set further ripples of improvement in motion once the grant was awarded.

“The beautiful sidewalks, repaving of the alley, and beautification of surrounding properties have helped Lewisburg increase its walkability and overall aesthetics of our block to stand out as one of the main thoroughfares into the City of Covington,” Brunsman said.

In addition to those enhancements, the public/private partnership led to revitalized buildings which resulted in new businesses. Salon Jade set up business across the street from Herb & Thelma’s. Some of the building upgrades to that building were the result of additional City programs like the Incentive program that helped fund façade improvements.

“We provided loans and grants to property owners for lead hazard remediation, newly rehabbed rental units, and multiple business façade improvements,” Wallace said. “The availability of these programs spurred private investors to acquire multiple properties and invest their own dollars into improving those properties and creating new business and residential opportunities.”

And there were rent subsidies for new businesses.

“The City has been nothing but helpful, both with RIPPLE and the other programs they have,” Pauly said. “The cool thing about Jeremy -- and Ross Patten (assistant director of Economic Development) is they want us to bring more commercial here. So, when Jade Salon moved in, they applied for the $500 a month rent subsidy, and we were able to apply for the façade improvements.”

Pauly said seeing young people purchasing homes on neighboring streets is evidence of continued positive “ripples.”

Fessler – who along with Chip Boehmker co-hosts a regular podcast out of the tavern that reflects on the neighborhood, its stories and history – knows Lewisburg has many new chapters.

“I think this can be a fantastic neighborhood, harkening back to the time when it was. Families that grew up here come back to Herb & Thelma’s,” he said. “They might not live here, but their hearts are still here.”

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