Yet another unique restaurant in The Cov, OLLA Taqueria Gutierrez, opened on West M.L. King Jr. Blvd. in June.
Amid massive challenges, Covington moved forward in 2021
COVINGTON, Ky. – As an exclamation, the phrase “What a year!” can, alternately, ooze vibes both negative and positive.
… so it was during 2021 in the City of Covington.
The year that just passed posed challenges galore, from Brood X cicadas to the variants Delta and Omicron, from the daily fight for survival for small retailers and restaurants to pain-in-the-bottleneck traffic jams caused by one year-long bridge project that finally ended (Brent Spence) and another year-long bridge project that is dragging on and on and on (John A. Roebling’s namesake).
At the same time, the daily work of the City moved forward with exciting plans to “skill up” residents with two new trades programs … long-awaited new life for the Latonia Shopping Center and other massive office and commercial rehab projects … a radical transformation and new philosophy for the riverfront … new businesses and jobs … progress on a new dog park … and validation in the form of four independent awards for City-driven initiatives and services.
City Hall informational bulletins over the last year (SUBSCRIBE!) have chronicled these developments blow by blow, but even engaged readers might not recognize the collective impact. Even though it’s almost February, we think it’s important to recap the year in The Cov.
(And yes, it’s long, but then we were BUSY):
SKILLS & TRADES: Wanting to “skill up” its workforce and help the construction industry fill a desperate need for skilled employees, the City announced plans to help set up two new training programs. One – a formal school open to both teens and adults – will focus on teaching mainstream trades, such as carpentry, welding, electricity, HVAC, plumbing. The other – which initially will be taught in a workshop format – will focus on so-called restoration trades, specialized skills needed to work on historic buildings (with their stained-glass windows, slate-shingled roofs, and wagon-wheel porch molding). The City’s partner in both is the Enzweiler Building Institute. ETA is late May for the restoration workshops and autumn for the construction trades classes.
MOMENTUM, MEASURED: In an article titled “Despite pandemic, momentum,” the City in April told the world about its 2020 performance in a glossy, 8-page first-in-a-long-time economic development report. The numbers were astounding: In 2020, The Cov announced the pending creation of 2,100 new jobs and private capital investment of $85.6 million, including an array of national and regional HQs.
CRANES & GROWTH: Meanwhile, 2021 saw that momentum continue. At the end of the year, the City reported the creation of an additional 1,641 jobs and $57.5 million in capital investment. Among the new announcements, continued renovations, workforce expansions, ribbon-cuttings etc.:
- Expansions: Almost 1,400 new jobs as part of three expansions announced at Fidelity Investments … 20 new jobs at Rizzo Bros. painting.
- Office: Completion of the $11.3MM new home for DBL Law … the ongoing renovation of the former Two Rivers Middle School into modern office space for the global HQ for branding and marketing firm DeanHouston+ and others … completion of the renovated new HQ for First Financial … the $3.3MM renovation for the new HQ of M&M Service Station … the ongoing $1MM renovation of the former Heringer Meats Building for retail and apartments … the $4.8MM renovation of offices in the six-story Republic Bank building (plus a rooftop restaurant and bar) … the $7-8MM renovation of the Latonia Plaza II for Blair Technology Group and ReGadget (see below).
- Housing: Partial demolition of the 10-story 303 Court St. office tower as it becomes The Hayden, a $31.4MM high-rise apartment building … design, site prep, and/or construction of the 132-unit Elevation 800 apartment complex on Highland Avenue, the 267-unit Tapestry Ridge complex overlooking the river, and the 27.7-acre Park Pointe housing complex on a shared border with Fort Wright … pending renovation of the Cambridge Square Apartments and The Colony senior living apartments … hundreds of new homes as part of the ongoing expansion of the Tuscany subdivision off 3L Highway.
- Mixed use: Ongoing work (and a new turret) for the $22.5MM rehab at Pike and Madison that will create office space and a Hotel Covington expansion … completion of the $1.9MM renovation of the “Pickle Factory” into boutique short-term rentals and an unfinished “bourbon experience” … ongoing work on the $36MM John R. Green apartment, commercial and office project.
IRS SITE: Behind-the-scenes work continued on the 23 acres downtown that used to house the IRS processing facility. City officials are about to issue a contract to demolish and salvage the site and address its environmental challenges. Earlier in the year, the City hired a third-party project manager – the global multi-disciplinary consulting firm J.S. Held – to oversee the complicated and time-intensive work of preparing the site for development, including helping to manage and coordinate the project’s budget, schedule, safety, contracts, compliance, demolition, and construction. Next up: Cranes and bulldozers.
BREAKTHROUGH IN LATONIA: After decades of frustration, the transformation of the long-beleaguered retail center along Winston Highway known as the “Latonia shopping center” is fully underway – and the excitement is spreading. Covtech Investments LLC bought the former Value City Furniture and Burlington Coat Factory big-box space (about 200,000 square feet) in 2020 and – with help from the City – spent 2021 turning that space into a hub for computer refurbishing and other high-tech work. Meanwhile, the transition accelerated when another group of local investors called Latonia Commerce LLC bought the remaining northern half of the center (about 116,000 square feet). It plans a mix of uses (office, e-commerce and retail), including the home of the construction trades program described above. Latonia Commerce also bought 8 acres of land behind the center zoned for industrial development. Stay tuned …
SMALL BUSINESS MILESTONE: Covington’s reputation for helping its small businesses went global this past autumn when a City financial assistance program was given a prestigious award by the International Economic Development Council, the world’s largest council of development professionals. A week later, the program – which helps businesses with first-year rent and exterior improvements – reached a milestone when it funded its 100th project in The Cov since 2017. Of those projects, one-third were owned by women, minorities, or military veterans.
BUSINESS COACHING: Speaking of small businesses, Covington strengthened its support system for entrepreneurs and others with the opening in May of a full-time office on Pike Street staffed by Lisa Brann of the Kentucky Small Business Development Center. Recognizing the value of the office’s no-cost coaching, consulting, advising, counseling, and training, the City renewed its contract with Kentucky SBDC and required recipients of various pandemic relief programs to work with the agency. By year’s end, over 150 clients had been helped.
NEW TOOL: Having the right tool for the job can make all the difference in the world, so when the City realized it needed a better tool to encourage the rehab of vacant, historic buildings into move-in commercial space, it created one. For taxpayers, the beauty of the Vacant Property incentive is that it is performance based – property owners are reimbursed a portion of payroll tax revenues paid by tenants they bring into renovated space. By year’s end, the new tool was helping several projects come to fruition.
ZONING: Architects, developers, and rehabbers have praised the City for replacing its rigid and unwieldy zoning ordinance with a more flexible and user-friendly Neighborhood Development Code. In 2021, Covington officials received further affirmation – this time, a formal acknowledgement – of the new code’s ease, efficiency, and innovation: The Special Merit Award for Outstanding Project/Program/Tool from the Kentucky chapter of the American Planning Association.
KEEPIN’ IT REAL: It makes sense, really. A City whose quirky charm is helping to power a new economic energy celebrated National Economic Development Week by creating a set of awards with no rules, vague criteria, and a low-key but fun “ceremony.” That explains what happened last May when City staff dropped in Publisher’s Clearinghouse Style to give the first-annual “Authenti-CITY Awards” to five places, events, people, organizations etc. that make The Cov the most authentically cool city in the Tri-State. The winners: the family-owned Gutierrez Deli … the weird-as-all-get-out Hail Records & Oddities retail shop … Hub+Weber’s annual “Badminton Brawl” tournament in the bricked plaza in front of its Russell Street office … the Covington Street Hockey League and its community engagement … and the high-fashion pageantry and haute couture of Covington resident Ron Padgett. Quirk, y’all.
LA ONDA NUEVA: City Hall wanted to make a point: The face of The Cov is changing. So to honor National Hispanic Heritage month in September, the City released a 2,200-word report that touched on the many ways that changing demographics have created a pulse – a liveliness that some call la onda nueva – that continues to intensify throughout Covington. Among the evidence for that new pulse are new taquerias, cantinas, and bodegas … increasing Census and school enrollment numbers for what the government variously calls “Hispanic” or “Latino” … and new programs and services by local community agencies. The report was written, City officials say, both to educate and celebrate the diversity of Covington. Later in the year, Mayor Joe Meyer was the keynote speaker before regional leaders at a fund-raising dinner for the Esperanza Latino Center, a nonprofit resource center in Covington.
A BRAND-NEW RIVERFRONT: Last summer saw the grand opening of the $6.5 million Covington Plaza on the banks of the Ohio River between Greenup Street and Madison Avenue. It features two hiking and biking trails that link to the six-city Riverfront Commons trail system, two overlooks, canoe and kayak access, and a 1,350-seat amphitheater and event area. The project 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. Almost immediately, the amphitheater was used for everything from a three-day taco festival to the weekly Luv The Cov Concert Series to live theater performances by The Carnegie.
STORM WATER: Intensifying its focus on addressing public health problems and erosion damage caused by rain runoff, aka storm water, the City continued to implement its new management of what’s called the MS4 program. A big step was a survey of residents to get a better sense of where basement flooding problems have happened in the past. Also in 2021, the City cut by 10 percent the month stormwater fee it inherited from SD1, began adding Public Works staff to oversee the physical work, and hired a consultant to help it adhere to federal Clean Water Act regulations.
BRIDGE SHUTDOWNS: Two state-mandated bridge maintenance and repair projects caused havoc for city streets and small businesses on opposite sides of Covington throughout 2021. To the west, lane reductions on the Brent Spence caused by a massive painting and maintenance project lasted from March 1 into November and clogged streets with interstate travelers and local commuters trying to avoid the backups. It was, in a word, a mess that forced City leaders to adjust parking and traffic routes. Meanwhile, to the east, the historic Roebling Suspension Bridge was closed to one lane of traffic in January 2021 and completely closed a month later for a restoration project that – at year’s end – had blown way past its expected finish times. The prolonged closure – especially on the heels of several similar closures in the past few years – continues to devastate establishments in the Roebling Point district.
BRENT SPENCE: It’s a discussion that has lasted decades: How to alleviate the traffic that continues to overwhelm the bridge between Covington and Cincinnati that carries 80,000 to 100,000 vehicles a day across the Ohio River along Interstates 71/75. After years of expressing concerns about the current plan for a massive companion bridge that would devastate the city, the Covington Board of Commissioners went on record in a big way with an op-ed in March 2021 that called the plan “fatally flawed.” The publication set off reverberations that saw Mayor Joe Meyer invited to a KET panel and interviewed by media outlets from New York to Washington to Tokyo to Switzerland. Meanwhile, toward the end of the year, President Biden insisted that his infrastructure investment plan approved by Congress contained enough money for Ohio and Kentucky officials to build the $2.7 billion project without having to toll drivers. (Gov. Andy Beshear continued that commitment in his proposed budget unveiled in early 2022.)
NEW DIGS FOR PUBLIC WORKS: The job of turning vacant warehouse-like space on Russell Street into the new home for Covington’s Public Works Department was turned over to Radius Construction, a job that is ongoing and should be finished soon. A separate but related contract resulted in a new road salt dome.
ROAD WORK: Cranes and bulldozers hired by the State highway department were a common sight in Covington, with the completion of a new 11th street pedestrian bridge over the railroad tracks between Madison Avenue and Russell Street and continuing work on the long-awaited $8.5 million realignment of Hands Pike in South Covington.
‘GOVERNMENT OF THE YEAR’: Outside, independent, and third-party affirmation is always rewarding. So naturally it felt good when the 370-member Kentucky League of Cities in August named Covington its “City Government of the Year.” The KLC called the City “a great example of a community and local leaders who constantly reinvent and re-image” and said Covington exemplified both “innovation and quality governance.” The award will be officially presented Feb. 18, 2022, during a reception for City volunteers.
PROFESSIONALISM PERSONIFIED: Similarly, the Covington Police Department in November reached rare company when it – again – passed an internationally recognized independent organization’s rigorous, years’ long assessment of Covington’s professionalism, policies, leadership, and standards. Covington was first accredited by what’s known as CALEA in 2017 and remains one of only three police agencies in Kentucky to earn that status. “This award of accreditation does not come easy,” CALEA’s national president said.
NEW LEADERSHIP: Changes in the workforce have always been a fact of life, and this decade has seen the pace of workplace arrivals and departures accelerate around the country. Entering 2022, Covington has a new city manager (Ken Smith), assistant city manager (Joy Pierson), Neighborhood Services director (Brandon Holmes) and assistant director (Keith Bales), City clerk (Susan Ellis), Human Resources director (Cindy Lewis), assistant chief in the Police Department (Justin Wietholter), deputy chief of operations in the Fire Department, (Michael Bloemer), assistant chiefs in charge of EMS (Gary Rucker) and Fire Department training (Corey Deye), and assistant communication manager (Vicki Prichard).
NEW WEB TOOLS: The ongoing mission? Make local government more open and more user friendly. Toward that end, the City did several things in 2021: In November, it added data sets on economic development incentives, rental license distribution, and road/street conditions to the immense amount of information available online. In July, it created an online search tool that allows users to zero in on a particular address and explore zoning regulations that govern it. And in March, it moved applications for rental licenses online for both long-term and short-term rental situations. With the help of Covington business Systems Insight, it also unveiled a revised website with a smart new look, engaging personality, and improved functionality.
RIPPLE: The area known as the Botany Hills Urban Junction (at Highway Avenue and Altamont Road) will look different in the coming years, thanks to a joint private-public program known as The RIPPLE Effect. The neighborhood-oriented project “won” $200,000 in publicly funded infrastructure improvements as well as focused application of City services after a competitive process. The City wrote about the Botany Hills project as well as the first Ripple Effect project at the Pike Street bend in Lewisburg.
GOING GREEN: The Solid Waste & Recycling team at the City partnered with groups like Keep Covington Beautiful and Rumpke Waste & Recycling in in 2021 for an array of innovative, taking-it-to-the-next-level initiatives to reduce landfill waste and save the environment, including an energized cigarette litter campaign … the recycling of pizza boxes … e-waste collection … the collection of “dead” Christmas lights (592 lbs.) and trees (213) … free vouchers at the trash transfer station … and expanded plastic tub recycling. We’re told more is in store in 2022.
GRANTS: From park benches to solar lampposts to a trash can shaped for pizza boxes, the City funded seven neighborhood projects in 2021. Associations in Austinburg, Peaselburg, Latonia, Monte Casino, Old Seminary Square Village, and Wallace Woods each received funding for their small improvement projects. And there’s more to come. Applications for another round of projects are currently under consideration.
PUBLIC WI-FI: January 2021 saw the last of the “hotspots” installed for Covington Connect, an aggressive, collaborative effort to smash the digital divide in Covington. The initiative began during the height of the pandemic and has two parts – helping students and their families access the Internet for free and giving away 1,000 free computers. The goal is both to support distance learning for students and to expand access to education and economic opportunities and health care for families. The numbers are impressive: To date, 15,202 residents are enrolled, with nearly 632,000 total “sessions” with each averaging 67 minutes. Partners include Cincinnati Bell, the Housing Authority of Covington, Renaissance Covington, local computer firms Blair Technology Group and ReGadget, and Comp-U-Dot, a Houston-based nonprofit.
HEALTH & SAFETY: The evolution of the City division that works to protect residents’ health and safety and preserve property values continued in 2021 when Code Enforcement went from part- to full-time staff and elevated its training and expertise to new levels. It also got TV coverage for the gas monitors inspectors now carry and could save lives with.
DOG PARK: After ranking high in a 2019 Parks & Rec 10-year master plan survey, Covington’s first designated dog park will become a reality. Demolition began in January 2022 on a 1½ acre complex next to Kenny Shields Park at Ninth and Philadelphia streets. A community engagement event at Goebel Park in 2021 let residents talk about the features they wanted.
LATONIA RENOVATION: After $300,000 in upgrades, Barb Cook Park was filled with kids every day and celebrated with a grand re-opening in April. A new shelter for picnics, colorful new play equipment, grill, picnic tables, a walking path, and more bring new energy to the park named for a longtime Latonia advocate.
Putting the “… of the people, by the people, for the people” philosophy into practice, the City reached out to residents throughout the year to get their input on important issues and proposed projects:
- EASTERN CORRIDOR: Economic development staff moved to Austinburg Neighborhood Park for a day to talk jobs, business activity, and local investment in the “Eastern Corridor” – with a little family-friendly fun to liven up the event.
- BRIDGE GATEWAY: Because first impressions matter, the City hosted a drop-by event at MainStrasse Village’s Goose Girl Fountain to discuss how to create an inviting “front door” at the Clay Wade Bailey Bridge Gateway.
- PARK UPDATE: Parks & Rec asked neighbors to get their mental “vision board” ready to help make plans to make Austinburg Neighborhood Park a better place to gather and play, as part of the ongoing neighborhood park redevelopment schedule.
- STREET TREES: The City asked for feedback on its urban canopy, aka a master plan for public trees. Covington has been named a Tree City USA for 16 years, and of course trees impact all range of things, from clean air to academic success.
- ARPA: What to do with $35.9 million? Over the last five months, the City solicited input from residents and businesses about how to invest the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery ARPA Funds to create high impact on neighborhoods and City services and strengthen the City’s finances for the long term. Recently, the Board of Commissioners allocated those funds to general categories, or “buckets.”
- DAY TO DAY: Back in 2018, we started asking: how can the City best interact with residents and businesses? We still want to know. The ongoing Customer Satisfaction Survey continues to help us evaluate ourselves.
The ongoing pandemic – and in particular the rise of the Delta and Omicron variants – continued to pose challenges and dominate the daily conversation in Covington, much like the world. Here at City Hall, daily operations, special programs, and decisions changed and evolved, all year long:
- OUTDOOR DINING: A special program to help restaurants and bars that temporarily created additional outdoor dining and drinking areas in public spaces – including parking spaces, alleys, and medians – was extended several times.
- VAX: “Moderna,” “Pfizer” and “Johnson & Johnson” became buzzwords when vaccination accessibility went mainstream at the convention center (2,400 shots by the 4th day), bringing a visit and praise from Gov. Andy Beshear. The City sponsored vaccination events in the Eastside and at Esperanza to help vulnerable populations, and another event attracted retired Bengals football players.
- SWIM SEASON: After being closed in 2020, City pools reopened and made a big splash. The 2021 season saw 1,275 households with 4,500 individuals registered for free passes and an additional 12,000 guest passes. About 90 percent of the teenagers working at Covington pools lived in the city. And there were swim lessons, free lunches served on weekdays, and a season-ending “dog swim.”
- POSITIVE TESTS: The business of serving the public continued, even as an array of City officials and workers came down with the virus and were hospitalized or quarantined at home, including Mayor Joe Meyer, City Manager Ken Smith and others.
- TESTING SITE: The City allowed the massive parking lots of the former IRS site to be used for free, drive-up testing, first by the Kentucky Department of Homeland Security and later (and currently) by Gravity Diagnostics, the Covington-based lab that has gained national publicity for its work. What a public service.
- OPEN MEETINGS: At various times, things went virtual as City Hall closed its doors to in-person visits from the public and the weekly Board of Commission meetings were no longer held in person. Both City Hall and the Commission chambers are now open, but you need to wear a mask.
- EVENTS: In attempts to return (even partially) to so-called normal life, several popular Citywide events returned in 2021, albeit with changes and reduced participation, including River Sweep … Great American Cleanup … and NKY Pride and tree plantings and more plantings.
Thanks for reading this far. And trust us – based on the January we just experienced – the “review” next year will be even more interesting.
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