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Can Covington Support a Downtown Grocery Store? Expert Says No

Residents of Downtown Covington and its surrounding neighborhoods who want a Whole Foods or a similar fashionable grocery store will likely be waiting a long time.

The conversation about such desires picked up again at The River City News Facebook page after it was reported that the building on Madison Avenue that previously housed a Walgreens before the drug chained moved to a new space, will now be home to a Dollar Tree.

Some residents had clamored for a small but new grocer, such as Aldi.

It is important to note that two years ago when the City of Covington heard the findings of the Center City Action Plan, a federally funded analysis of how to revitalize the urban center completed by Denver-based Progressive Urban Management Associates (PUMA), indicated that any hopes for a new grocery store would likely not be filled.

"Downtown Covington can no longer support what it once was," said Mike Berne, a retail expert with MJB Consulting who spoke to the city commission in 2012 as part of the PUMA team.

He noted that Covington's population dropped from 65,000 in the middle of the 20th century to just over 40,000 people today and those who are left don't make the kind of salaries that could support a thriving retail community and those who do have the cash drive to suburban centers in Crestview Hills or Kenwood.

"We have formidable competition," Berne said in 2012. At the time, there was 613,000 square feet of retail space in Downtown Covington where only 430 households bring in more than $75,000 a year. Half of the households bring in less than $25,000.

Because of those demographics, an upscale grocery in Covington is not likely, Berne said. The city is served by an outdated and dirty Kroger and a Save-a-Lot on Madison Avenue, as well as the small Economy Market, which recently was sold after being in the same family for half a century. Many residents travel to the newer Kroger locations in Newport or Ft. Mitchell.

"An upscale supermarket is not necessarily realistic in the near term. There is not enough people who make enough money," Berne said. 

But that's not to say that Covington cannot be a market for fresh foods. Berne specifically cited Economy Market as a piece of what should become part of the city's pursuit to create an old European-style shopping experience where customers buy meat at one place, and fish, produce, flowers, and other items at other stores.

At the time of Berne's presentation, the retail expert had a sharp exchange with City Commissioner Steve Frank who discounted the study's findings. "I have had long conversations with chains that are looking at the area around Hamburger Heaven (the nickname given by PUMA to the fast food district around the Fifth Street exit)," Frank said at the time, adding that he expects that many of the new residents in Downtown Cincinnati would patronize a Covington grocery. Berne stood by his claims. 

"Downtowners (in Cincinnati) have options and will have more soon," Berne said. "That is just my opinion, but I don't see it."

"I don't need you to see it," Frank countered. "Fortunately I've got the contacts and the money."

 
But two years later, there are no publicly-known plans for any new grocer's presence in the city, although City Manager Larry Klein recently hinted that the Duro Bag building site could be a prime spot for a new development, leading some to speculate that it would be a good place for an updated Kroger.
 
The good news since the presentation of the Center City Action Plan two years ago is that more buildings are filling up with residents and there are more such developments on the horizon. The Mutual Building is under construction and fifteen upscale apartments will go there. Following that, the same developers will begin work on the Doctors Building on Seventh Street to put new residences there. Multiple developments on Pike Street have brought or will soon bring new residents, too.
 
So what do you think? Can a new grocery store survive in Downtown Covington? Weigh in below or at Facebook, on Twitter, or email us!
 
Photo: Kroger on Madison Avenue in Covington/RCN