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Let's Talk About Latonia and How We Can Capitalize on its Strengths

This article is written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News

Last fall, I had the idea that maybe, now that I'm in my mid-30s, it was time that I buy a house of my own.

Turns out, though, you have to have money to do that. Weird.

But prior to the bank shooting down my dreams with some nonsense along the lines of, "We can't find any income from you, sir,"* I had a good look around Northern Kentucky's urban core, sizing up properties.

*Yes, I earn an income, but as owner of the business it's calculated in a manner currently that was just not favorable to my idea of settling down, so I'll stretch out my long expired wayward youth a little longer...

Those of you who know me won't be surprised that downtown Covington is where I want to be, but in publishing The River City News for five years now, three of which have been spent adding more cities to the coverage area - particularly our neighboring River Cities, I've grown quite affectionate towards all of our urban areas. So, I opened up the possibility that I could live in Newport, or Ludlow, Bellevue, or Dayton, too.

Then one day on the way back from my parents' house to my downtown Covington loft I passed through Latonia and it hit me like a ton of bricks: I could live here.

I stopped, got out of the car, and absorbed Ritte's Corner, a place I've stopped at thousands of time. I've had the same dentist - Dr. Kaiser - there since I was 12 years old. But this was the first time I looked at it as a potential resident. Though I grew up in South Covington, my adult heart has always been downtown. That's when I understood: this is another downtown Covington. Our city really has two downtowns.

But Ritte's Corner is not on the same upswing as downtown Covington where there's a $21.5 million boutique hotel under construction, a year-old brewery that packs crowds inside nearly every night, newly renovated buildings for Gateway Community & Technical College, new restaurants and creative projects, and dozens of new residential units that can't be finished quickly enough to meet demand. Downtown Covington has turned a corner. 

The city's second downtown, however, has been stuck in a rut.

The good news is, from my perspective, that Latonia - and Ritte's Corner, that unique 5-way intersection with its cluster of historic structures still standing as proudly as ever, in particular - will be easier to revive than the Center City, which is large and complicated. 

I see an urban center in Latonia's Ritte's Corner that has the benefit of a strong population base made up of families in the vicinity, and one that is better connected to potential visitors from the suburbs thanks to I-275. To me, that also bodes well for the long overdue redevelopment of the Latonia Shopping Center, a relic of what it was when I was a kid and we could shop at Value City, rent movies, buy candy... 

I see potential. And I also see that it's time to act.

So while I wasn't able to purchase a home in Latonia, or anywhere, yet, I did have something else I could do. Late last year I entered into my final term of graduate school where I was finished a master's degree in communication. It was time to pick my "capstone" project, a digital marketing campaign for a company or place or organization of my choosing. With the potential of the area still fresh in my mind, I chose to focus on Ritte's Corner and the Latonia Shopping Center.

I created a project titled "Latonia Life" and emphasized the need for grassroots community engagement on social media showcasing #LatoniaLife, the good and the bad - because honesty is refreshing to people. I identified specific platforms that could be used to target potential developers who may find interest in some of the old building stock, ideas for events to bring in entrepreneurs looking for affordable retail or office space, and simple signs that could be created to show the people of Latonia that the City of Covington is actively prepared to be a partner in redeveloping the shopping center area. 

I got an A on the project and finished my master's degree, which of course now means that I know everything. So, with my new scholarly mind prepared to tell the world what's best for it, I approached the Latonia Business Association and offered myself up as a possible speaker at its monthly luncheon. Somehow, the pitch worked, and I'll be delivering some of these ideas to the LBA on Wednesday, June 15, at Twin Oaks Golf & Plantation Club at 11:45 a.m. Come on out and critique me and participate and get ready to spread the word about #LatoniaLife. Oh, and bring $12 because lunch costs money - and it's worth it. 

And you'll be happy to know that some of the ideas I came up with in my grad school capstone have made their way into some of the city's proposed budget. While I recommended that the city's Main Street program, Renaissance Covington, be reassigned to focus exclusively on Latonia (a recommendation that was created prior to the organization becoming an independent entity), I also recommended that the city focus some of its small business incentives like rent subsidies and development incentives like upper floor residential rehab grants on our second downtown.

Those are currently proposals in the budget that will likely be approved this month by the city commission.

I sat down with Geoff Milz, the city's enthusiastic economic development manager, and asked him about it. 

"We're going to use our new business attraction strategy in Latonia to bring new retailers and restaurants," Milz said. The city will be partnering with a company called Buxton, which specializes in analytics to determine the best retail and restaurant attraction strategy. "We are creating a fire so hot in downtown Covington that it will light the neighboring areas."

The incentives are likely headed southward, too. "I think a lot of the projects demonstrate that we are creating a fire down here, some heat. So, I think we're now ready to expand some of the geography of some of the incentive programs," Milz said.

City officials are quick to note that Latonia has not been ignored - the neighborhood has seen substantial investment in terms of road and sidewalk repairs, and the first-time home buyer grant program has helped many individuals and families establish themselves there. But they know that something must be down to improve Ritte's Corner and the shopping center. 

Recently, the weekly ribbon-cutting the city hosts brought officials out to Bards Burgers (pictured above). Milz sees the same potential at Ritte's Corner that I did.

"Ritte's Corner is," he said, thinking about the place, "Where else can you feel liek you are in a Normal Rockwell small town and drive ten minutes and be in a bustling city center? Where else can you have access to incredible public and parochial schools? And have a Bards burger?"

Well, that's certainly all true about Latonia - a hidden gem of an urban enclave ripe for a renaissance.

I hope that by initiating the conversation on Wednesday that people far and wide will be ready to come and experience #LatoniaLife.

Hope to see you there!

Michael