Checking In: Covington City Hall to Become Landmark Hotel

The Hotel Covington, a new boutique hotel going inside the current City Hall and at $25 million, the largest development project to hit Covington in years was the result of a broken down Porsche. Tim Dixon, owner of the boutique Iron Horse Hotel in Milwaukee, Wisconsin had been "chasing his tail" for several years, fielding offers from cities across the country looking to mimic his success. By the time Guy van Rooyen, president of the Covington-based Salyers Group called, Dixon was finished trying to help other communities build a boutique hotel of their own. But Covington was lucky because one of Dixon's associates, Brigette Breitenbach, was in Charlotte, North Carolina picking up an old Porsche she had purchased and agreed to drive through Covington and see what the city had going on.

Breitenbach met  with van Rooyen, Mayor Chuck Scheper, and other city leaders and was impressed during her tour of the city building, a 1910 structure that originally housed the Coppin's department store. Upon her departure, the newly purchased Porsche had a hard time getting started but with the help of Scheper and others literally pushing her out of town, Breitenbach would look forward to returning, this time with Dixon.

The Iron Horse Hotel was built inside an old timber warehouse in Downtown Milwaukee, developed by the Chicago-based Aparium Hotel Group. Its success has been widely heralded and as Dixon explained, attempts to replicate it have been many. Or, at least dreams of replicating it have been many. Covington had an ace in the hole in the form of Scheper who, while showing Dixon around City Hall, told him he understood fully how ambitious the project would be and wanted to know only how to make it happen. With the coordinated efforts of the Salyers Group, the Apairum Hotel Group, and the City of Covington, Downtown was destined to have a boutique hotel of its own.

On Thursday morning inside the City Hall's city commission chambers, Mayor Scheper announced the details of the deal standing in the middle of what will become, over the next year to eighteen months, the lobby of The Hotel Covington. The moment was significant not only for the scale of the announced development but also because it was one year ago - to the day - that Scheper, a retired insurance executive, reluctantly took over as mayor following the resignation of Denny Bowman.

"The Coppin building has great bones but has fallen into disrepair in recent years," Scheper said in front of a room full of business and community leaders and the media, also noting that the city only occupies 15,000 square feet of the 80,000 square feet available in the building. "More than half of the building is empty and it would take millions to renovate it only to compete with the vacancies that exist today in many of our commercial buildings." Scheper knew he had to do something and what better way to prove that he was going to make his promised systemic changes in City Hall, than to sell City Hall for a profit?

It was December of last year that Scheper first met with van Rooyen and the Salyers to discuss the future of Covington. The Salyers have a long history of restoring the greatness old Covington buildings. Their Madison Events Center is inside what used to be a Woolworth's, Donna Salyers' Fabulous Bridal towers over Madison Avenue in what was once a savings & loan, and their warehouse used to be home to Wadsworth Electric Company. Van Rooyen floated to Scheper the dream of opening a boutique hotel to capitalize on their strong event business. But could it be done in yet another one of Covington's old buildings, the one that used to be a prime destination for shoppers from across the region, the one that has housed City Hall since 1990, and the one that still stands as Kentucky's first reinforced concrete skyscraper?

Scheper referred back to his swearing-in ceremony a year ago where he offered up what he called his favorite quotation, one from George Bernard Shaw: "Some men see things as they are and ask 'why'? I dream of things that never were and ask, 'why not?'"

"At some point I asked Guy if he would consider City Hall for the hotel," Scheper said. "It is truly an underutilized asset for the city and the amount of space was perfect for what he was considering. His answer was, why not?"

"The name itself recognizes our pride in the community," van Rooyen said of The Hotel Covington. He added that the Madison Events Center is responsible for approximately 3,500 hotel room bookings in the Cincinnati area each year. "Our family has a long history of investing in downtown Covington, and over the years, our investment in building and operating reception halls and retail businesses have helped bring hundreds of thousands of people to Covington. We see this hotel as a truly catalytic project and a great opportunity to restore another historic building in the heart of downtown Covington while at the same time bringing additional visitors, from further away, to this wonderful community."

The hotel will feature 107 guest rooms and is expected to employ 125 people. With a focus on what the developers call "translocal hospitality", The Hotel Covington will also have a restaurant inside what is now the Wedding Mall, also owned by the Salyers, and a bar that they would like to see become a favorite among locals. The developers will seek tax deals from the local, state, and federal governments and the city is pursuing a tax incremental financing (TIF) plan for the development. The project is also the first in Covington by the Catalytic Development Fund which provides funding assistance and related services for developers of quality residential and commercial real estate projects in Northern Kentucky's River Cities, including Covington. Earlier this year, the Fund reached its initial fundraising goal of $10 million and has been investigating real-estate development opportunities, such as the planned hotel development.

Aparium Hotel Group CEO Mario Tricoci is confident about the success The Hotel Covington can be and bases that feeling on his first meeting with the mayor. "That experience is why I knew from a personal perspective that I wanted to be affiliated with this endeavor here," he said. Scheper took Tricoci on a tour of the building and showed him all the various views from the Seventh floor, views that would be available to hotel guests in future. Tricoci recalled seeing the Cincinnati skyline to the north, the Licking River and historic rowhouses to the east, the rolling hills and Mainstrasse Village to the west, and the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption and Madison Avenue's streetscape to the south. During the tour while taking in the views, Tricoci became more impressed with the mayor. "What I found most remarkable is he was simply talking about Covington. He wasn't trying to sell me anything. I thought that was extraordinarily remarkable."

"If more fiscally challenged cities had a mayor like him, our country would be better off."

The city scores on the deal as an equal partner with the Salyers Group and Aparium and will be paid $3 million over the next five years, double the value of the building which was included in the deal. "We had a choice," said City Commissioner Steve Frank, "keep a deteriorating property or find a business that would buy it."

"This kind of deal would not happen in any other city but we're dealing with honorable partners," Scheper said.

The developers also vow to use local firms in all facets of the projects. The BLDG on Pike Street in Downtown Covington, recently notable for their work on the food truck events posters, will be handling the branding of The Hotel Covington. Others will be announced as work on the building nears.

As for City Hall, it will likely seek out a place to rent, and may in fact become permanent renters, multiple city leaders told The River City News Thursday. The city will have to issue requests for proposals before moving in as will the state offices that are also currently housed at City Hall.

PHOTO: Covington City Hall, formerly the Coppin's department store, and soon to be home to The Hotel Covington/RCN file

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