‘The 5-billion-dollar mile’: Bulldozers at the ready for 23 acres

City seeks legislative support, contractor to prepare site for developers

COVINGTON, Ky. – With private developers waiting in the wings, the City of Covington hopes to break ground in early spring on installing the public infrastructure that will transform a 23-acre “blank canvas” a block south of the Ohio River into a shovel-ready site.

The City has issued a formal request for proposals from contractors wanting to lay the first phase of the “horizontal infrastructure” – i.e. streets, sidewalks, sewer lines, utilities – that will represent the foundation for the offices, homes, hotels, and retail shops to come.

Meanwhile, City leaders – both administration and elected officials – have been meeting with members of the Northern Kentucky Legislative Caucus to update them on the massive project and build support for including it in the state biennial budget being crafted in the legislative session that got under way this week.

“After only three years of preparatory work that largely has taken place outside the public’s eye, we are ever so close to firing up the bulldozers and excavators that will begin transforming this dirt field into our exciting vision,” City Manager Ken Smith said. “We think legislators will recognize the regional impact of the project and understand how important a prepared, ready-to-go site is in bringing it to fruition.”

The site, located just west of Madison Avenue and north of Fourth Street, was home to a sprawling one-story IRS tax-processing facility for more than five decades. The facility was decommissioned in 2019, the City bought the site in 2020, and the building was demolished in 2022. During that time, the City worked with the public and consultants to create a conceptual master plan for a mixed-use site seamlessly integrated into the surrounding commercial and residential districts.

Currently, trucks are moving to the site some 27,000 cubic yards of fill dirt that will be used to level the land and slope it up to the height of the Ohio River floodwall.

Proposed timeline

Over the last year, a team led by architectural firm KZF Design Inc. drew up engineering plans for the “horizontal infrastructure,” which consists of parking, utilities, streets, alleys, sidewalks, a levee park, and other public gathering places.

The request for proposals, or RFP, can be seen on the City’s procurement page by clicking Professional Grade Contracting Services. The deadline for submissions is Feb. 7.

Elizabeth Wetzel, the City’s Director of Special Projects & Intergovernmental Affairs, said administrators hoped to bring a contract for approval to the Board of Commissioners in March, with construction starting soon thereafter.

“We anticipate strong proposals from contractors who want to build out the public infrastructure for this high-profile project,” Wetzel said. “Their bids will be reviewed for not only cost but also for demonstration of capability and adherence to an aggressive project timeline.”

Simultaneous with the engineering work, the City also partnered with BusinessFlare Economic Development Solutions to prepare a marketing strategy, identify developers, and subdivide the site, as seen on this Block Diagram.

Covington Economic Development Director Tom West said the City has been negotiating with private developers for the sale and development of individual parcels, with four parcels fronting Fourth Street expected to be the first developed.

“We anticipate having agreements in place with developers ready to mobilize as soon as the site is ready,” West said. “There is a lot of interest in the site.”

Phase 1

  • Phase 1 of the horizontal infrastructure includes restoring the street grid between Third and Fourth street; laying gas, electric, water, and communications lines for that same area; running sanitary and storm sewer lines under the entire 23 acres; and building the median/public plaza space near the Russell Street extension.
  • Phase 2, which will be advertised down the line, includes the rest of the underground utilities; an underground parking garage; the levee park; and sidewalks and other “finish” amenities.

Legislative support

Over the last two weeks, Covington leaders have been meeting with business leaders and state legislators to update them on the progress to date on the site, further describe its vision, and detail the anticipated financial reverberations for not only Northern Kentucky but also the state. The Kentucky General Assembly convened Tuesday on a 60-day session in which they will, among other things, write the state’s biennial budget.

  • Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear’s proposed budget allocates $7.5 million in General Fund revenue for public infrastructure at the site, with the City expected to match that investment.
  • The Governor’s budget separately allocates $4 million to the Northern Kentucky Convention Center, which is located adjacent to the 23 acres on its northeast corner, to help with its expansion. The City’s plan for the site sets aside land for that expansion, long desired by regional officials.

State investment in the Covington site is critical and appropriate, West said, given the wide-ranging impact of the once-in-a-generation opportunity and the importance of public-private collaboration in facilitating development.

“There is an understanding at all levels of state government that having development-ready sites is important to attracting private investment,” West said. “In the current biennial budget, legislators included a $100 million Product Development Initiative program that has been and is being used to bring infrastructure and other improvements to industrial parks throughout the Commonwealth.”

Furthermore, in approving the creation of a rare statewide Tax Increment Financing District that includes the site, Kentucky economic development officials in 2022 predicted the new neighborhood would bring an additional $94.5 million to state coffers alone over its first 30 years, West said.

“Clearly the impact will be felt far outside the City’s borders,” he said.

The $5-billion mile

West said the proposed allocations add to what’s being called “the $5 billion mile” – a historic investment of money and energy on the riverfront across two counties that is transforming Northern Kentucky.

“This state allocation would not only be matched by the City but also would leverage a multi-stakeholder investment along 1 mile of Northern Kentucky’s riverfront to the tune of $5 billion,” West said. “From the Brent Spence Bridge Corridor to the new Covington Central Riverfront neighborhood to the OneNKY Alliance building (under construction) to the new Licking River bridge to Ovation in Newport, we believe the riverfront is currently the biggest multi-jurisdictional, multi-stakeholder public-private investment engagement in the United States.”

And that doesn’t even count what Cincinnati has planned for the same mile-long stretch on its side of the Ohio River, including a new convention center, hotel, improvements to Paycor Stadium, and possibly a new arena, West said.

The Catalytic Fund

Jeanne Schroer, president & CEO of The Catalytic Fund – a non-profit that has helped finance real-estate revitalization in Northern Kentucky’s urban core – saluted the potential of the site and said the organization stood ready “to partner with the City and potential developers to help execute the community’s vision for this exciting development opportunity.”

Said Schroer: “This site is probably the most attractive development opportunity in the region and the Midwest with 23 acres of prime, riverfront property. Covington has had extraordinary development momentum … creating a very strong foundation and the market demand to support the development of the Covington Riverfront site at this time.”

History & vision

To learn more about the City’s vision for the site, read “For 55 years an ‘island,’ IRS site

to be woven back into urban fabric.”

Rather than turn the entire 23 acres over a single developer, officials want to create a neighborhood that connects seamlessly into its diverse surroundings, which include the downtown business district, the historic community of Old Town/Mutter Gottes, the Ohio River, a hotel and convention district, and the MainStrasse Village mixed-use area.

For a fly-through video that shows the conceptual “feel” of the proposed site (i.e. not how the buildings will actually look), see the Virtual Fly Through on the City’s Covington Central Riverfront Development webpage.

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