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EXCLUSIVE: Kenton May Seek Millions from State for Building, Some in Campbell Oppose

Kenton County may ask the Kentucky General Assembly for $15 million to assist it in transforming its government building at 303 Court Street in Covington to a Class A office building that could also be home to Northern Kentucky University's Chase College of Law.

The River City News obtained a copy of a presentation Judge/Executive Kris Knochelmann, with the help of the Catalytic Fund, made to the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce consensus committee which evaluates and prioritizes the region's goals prior to budget years in Frankfort. The proposal, an estimated $35 million project, calls for transforming the 10-story, 46-year old building, with a new exterior (re-skinning), bringing Chase Law and its 600 students into newly renovated floors of classroom and office space, and add a more significant piece of architecture to the Covington skyline.

Since the move of the Kenton County Detention Center to South Covington, much of the building is underutilized. The Kenton County Fiscal Court contracted with the Catalytic Fund to evaluate possibilities, and with Corporex to evaluate the structure and whether it's worth renovating or tearing down and starting over.

"Corporex is still working through its analysis of the building and I think we'll have that analysis in the next forty days or so," said John Stanton, Kenton County's director of external affairs, during Tuesday's Fiscal Court meeting. "We are still working with NKU. We will have a good, vigorous discussion about whether that is something to pursue."

Stanton said that the response to the proposal of bringing Chase Law to downtown Covington from the university's Highland Heights campus has been positive. "I still remain cautiously optimistic that we'll have something worth pursuing here," he said.

However, bringing Chase from Highland Heights means transferring the college across the Licking River and county lines. Some leaders in Campbell County have raised concerns about the proposed departure of Chase from Highland Heights. Campbell County Commissioner Charlie Coleman and political activist Jim Cole joined The River City News for a podcast about the subject. That interview can be heard in full here:

Coleman expressed concern about the presentation since the document did not have any organization's name on it and prioritizes an NKU entity as part of redevelopment plans in Covington.

“It’s a document that is interesting in the fact that it has no one’s name on it on who produced it,” Coleman said. “I don’t know if the tax payers paid for it, or if it was done privately. It has NKU on almost every page tied in with riverfront development down here in Covington.”

Both Coleman and Cole are part of a group that meets regularly to strategize on ways to stop Chase from leaving Campbell County.  

"It’s a citizens group that has been loosely organized and is a very diverse group representing all the political parties in Campbell County as well as a number of other groups,” Cole said. “We’ve talked about how the core redevelopment of Covington done on the backs of Campbell County and Highland Heights particularly is just wrong. They talk about regionalism, but I don’t think stealing from your neighboring county to butter your bread is regionalism, I think it’s just wrong.”

Both said that if the law school were to leave the county, it would have a devastating impact on Campbell County, but also more specifically on the City of Highland Heights.

“My understanding in talking with the mayor of Highland Heights is that it would put a financial burden on the city. There are contracts between the university and the city to provide a tax base because they provide police support and a number of other things, so this would upset that apple cart. It would put them right up to the red line rather than being in the black,” Cole said.

“It would affect the county as well as far as payroll taxes. I looked at the website and there are about 423 students at Chase Law School, 50 faculty members, they all aren’t full time, but those are pretty high paying jobs—six figure jobs,” Coleman said.

Kenton's gain would be Campbell's loss, Coleman said.

Knochelmann said placing Chase in downtown Covington would raise the college's visibility while stimulating economic development and following a national trend of universities placing certain graduate-level programs in an urban core to combat the so-called "brain drain".

"If you have a building like this in the city, it has a home," Knochelmann said of Chase. "Look at all the cities that have downtown law schools that are successful and growing." Schools cited in the presentation to the Chamber's consensus committee include the University of Memphis, Fordham University, Georgetown University, and Northwestern University.

The presentation also emphasizes economic development in the Northern Kentucky River Cities, and not just Covington so as to include Campbell County cities, too. "I don't think it's pitting Kenton at Campbell at all," Knochelmann said. "For the residents we serve, it is absolutely the right thing for the region, just as I attended and celebrated the $97 million Health Innovation Center at Northern."

The idea of moving Chase to Covington has benefits that even Coleman and Cole acknowledge.

“The economic development factor in making that building attractive and enhancing the view as you come from Ohio, we agree with all of that. What we don’t agree with is that it’s right to take it from Campbell County. This is the crown jewel of NKU, the law school. Chase Law School was saved by NKU when it was no longer able to function. I think this builds a case for the economic development of Covington,” Cole said.

The pair from Campbell also raised suspicions about references to the College of Informatics having a presence on Court Street, too. The presentation acknowledges the informatics program's connection to downtown Covington entrepreneur opportunities like UpTech, the region's informatics start-up company accelerator.

Meanwhile, back on campus in Highland Heights, Coleman is concerned that Nunn Hall, which currently houses Chase, would have to be renovated, too.

“Nunn Hall would have to be redone for other classrooms because it’s set up to be a law school. Where is that cost going to come from? All this is on the backs of taxpayers. Even if they put an expanded program in there—which I was told by a member of the Board of Regents they don’t have the money to do—the tax base created from that would be significantly less than the law school,” he said.  

Knochelmann views a potential change to Nunn Hall as a positive, too.

"It would open up the Chase Law School building," Knochelmann said. "(NKU) needs classroom space which would be full and would have teachers who would have payroll. Getting a brand new school building built on campus is very unlikely, whereas this is a win for everybody. There may be a few small details that are not beneficial for Campbell County or the city."

Coleman and Cole pointed to other major institutions that currently exist in Kenton County and expressed offense that it is seeking to take the law school.

“Let’s look at Kenton County. The Convention Center is here, TANK is located in Kenton County, SD-1 is located in Kenton County, the Water District, Highway District 6, they own the airport, and we have the University. I’m offended that they want to take part of it,” he said. “We do want to stop it and this is a Campbell County effort. There are other uses for that building and one would be office space.”

Meanwhile, Kenton County's government continues to explore options for its own home as it would vacate 303 Court Street if Chase were to move there. At one point, the county was exploring a joint project with the City of Covington at Seventh & Washington Streets, which would reunite the two entities for the first time since the County Administration was built for both of them in 1969. The county later opted to wait on moving forward with that deal because of cost concerns, Knochelmann said. 

"Nothing has happened with it. I don't foresee something is going to happen until we cross the bridge of the preliminary numbers on Chase," he said. "Everything comes back to that number, is it doable to have another use for this building. I'm not going to bring anything back to you that doesn't make financial sense long term."

Written by Michael Monks and Bryan Burke