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Downtown Covington Quietly but Surely Coming to Life

A block of Madison Avenue packed with people.

For a few moments on Tuesday afternoon city and civic leaders got a peek at what they hope is a more frequent scene, even when it's not them making up the entirety of the crowd.

The ceremonial groundbreaking of the Mutual Building project drew dozens to the 600 block of Madison Avenue, across the street from the $2.6 million project that will bring fifteen upscale apartments and newly renovated first floor commercial space to a 100-year old structure that has been mostly vacant for two decades.

"In some ways this building symbolizes the renaissance that Covington is going through now," said Guy van Rooyen, CEO of the Salyers Group and a development partner in the Mutual Building project with Bill Kreutzjans and Ashley Development. His comparison is apt, he said, because like the building, Downtown Covington was often eyed for its potential but no one, or at least not enough people, took the risk.

And now they are. "I do believe that the restoration of this flagship building is just the beginning," he said.

Van Rooyen said those words in the shadow of another of his projects, the lauded Hotel Covington, Downtown Covington's most anticipated trophy of its effort at revitalization. But that project hit major snag late in the spring when it was not included on the list of federal New Market Tax Credits, an element of the project's financing plan. The hotel's developers remain optimistic that the deal will move forward anyway.

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In the meantime, the Mutual Building is full of contractors knocking down walls and preparing it to welcome the urban center's newest residents and commercial tenants. The 600 block of Madison is particularly busy. With the hotel awaiting its commencement inside the Coppins Building and former City Hall at the southeast corner, the northeast corner features a former bank building that will soon house a Barnes & Noble booksellers serving Gateway Community & Technical College whose new urban campus will also include the renovated Marx Furniture Building where design classes will be taught a block north. That building is almost complete.

To the north of the Mutual Building at 2 West Pike Street, independent developer Kelly Charlton has taken a rundown unique building and brought it back to life, and has already welcomed her first commercial tenant. A block west on Pike Street, Orleans Development and the Center for Great Neighborhoods continue to work on adding residential units above UpTech, Covington's start-up business accerlator, and the old Tanino's Building is also a target for residential use in the coming months by Orleans, which recently completed the remodeling of a vacant warehouse into the Market Lofts on Pike Street.

Braxton Brewery will soon replace Covington Arts nearby on Seventh Street.

For all the ups and downs the effort to revitalize Downtown Covington has been met with, the ups are starting to add up. The Mutual Building in particular is significant.

"This is one of Covington's most treasured historic assets," said Jeanne Schroer, executive director of the Catalytic Fund which was instrumental in securing financing and restructuring the complicated deal. Schroer noted that when the building opened in 1921, it housed the Covington Industrial Club, the precursor to the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. It was the center of commercial activity in the region's main business district.

Now the building once again has the chance to play a role in the city's quest to return to that prestige. "Downtown Covington is thriving again," Schroer said. "I think it can be the region's most viable living, working, and entertainment area for those seeking an urban lifestyle."

Steve Brunson, president of Citizens Bank, the institution that took a chance on the project, promised even more good things to come. "This isn't the end," he said. "We have other projects in Covington we want to get behind."

"This project is going to be amazing," Mayor Sherry Carran said. 

The ceremonial groundbreaking involved a small pile of dirt on a piece of tarp where Schroer, Carran, Brunson, van Rooyen, and Kreutzjans posed with shovels, in the shadow of a Downtown slowly waking up, and where for a few brief moments an entire block was full of people again.

Story & photos by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News

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