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Independence Mayor Objects to County's Purchase of Bavarian Building

Independence Mayor Chris Reinersman objected Tuesday to the Kenton County Fiscal Court's decision to acquire the Bavarian Brewery Building property in downtown Covington.

The Fiscal Court convened Tuesday morning for a special meeting that allowed its members to vote for the acquisition.

Reinersman said that he found out about the planned purchase on Friday afternoon when The River City News broke the story. He believes the county should have built a new government center in his city.

"Obviously, I believe it belongs in Independence, the other county seat, and you believe it needs to remain in the urban core," Reinersman said to Judge/Executive Kris Knochelmann. "We disagree on this and I respect your views. I do however feel compelled to make a case for Independence."

Reinersman said that he believed there would have been more time and public discourse involved in the decision-making process of where to locate new county offices. "From my perspective, this does seem to be moving awfully quick. The need for a special meeting would seem to suggest some urgency and that a closing is very soon to follow," the mayor said. "I know you and trust you, however, and trust that the reasons for this quick action will be apparent down the road."

Two buildings' futures uncertain

The county was expected to close on the property at 2 p.m. Tuesday. It is to pay $4.5 million from the county reserve fund to cover the acquisition cost. There are not yet any development plans for what the site will look like when Kenton County moves its government there from its skyscraper built on Court Street in 1969 that was previously also home to the county jail. When the detention center moved to a new facility in South Covington, more than half the building became vacant. It is in need of major repairs.

In recent months, Knochelmann has been open about his desire to have Northern Kentucky University's Chase College of Law embrace a trend of law schools moving to urban centers. Chase would move from NKU's main Highland Heights campus into the newly renovated tower, a rendering for which was created by Covington-based Corporex earlier this year.

That idea has been met with objection by some Campbell County leaders, and NKU officials have not expressed any commitment to the idea. 

The building is also a possible target for private redevelopment for residential purposes.

What is now clear is that Kenton County is vacating it and moving to the Bavarian Brewery Building, an historic and iconic structure that harkens to Covington's brewing heritage. The castle-like structure is one of the most prominent properties seen from Interstate 75 and sits right at the exit for Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. It has been the center of an 18-month long legal battle between the City of Covington and the building's previous owner, Columbia Sussex, the Crestview Hills-based developer of hotels and casinos, which bought the building ten years ago in hopes that the Commonwealth of Kentucky would legalize expanded gaming.

Casino legislation never passed in Kentucky and the building has sat vacant for nearly a decade. Columbia Sussex had approached the City of Covington for permission to raze the structure, arguing that the site is more marketable to developers without the building. The city's urban design review board, the city commission, and a Kenton County Circuit Court judge, all disagreed with Columbia Sussex. The case was set to head to the Kentucky Court of Appeals when news of the county's plan broke late last week.

Knochelmann told The River City News on Friday that it is his intention to save as much of the building as possible, particularly the beloved tower portion, though some is expected to be razed to make way for new construction. The judge/executive was able to get Columbia Sussex and its Yung family ownership to sell for $4.5 million rather than the $7.3 million asking price.

Two county seats, both growing

Kenton County and its neighbor to the east, Campbell County, are the only ones in Kentucky to have two county seats. Covington and Independence have the distinction in Kenton while Newport and Alexandria are the centers of government in Campbell. Each county's fiscal court conducts meetings in both cities and some government services are offered in both. 

Reinersman, who stated that he is supportive and excited by downtown Covington's recent resurgence, said that Independence is also growing and may be better positioned to serve the needs of more Kenton County residents than Covington. He cited data provided to him by Planning & Development Services (PDS) and called Independence the geographic center of the county - the reasoning behind establishing it as the first county seat in 1840. The population center of the county, according to PDS as relayed by Reinersman, is a subdivision in Edgewood at the top of Dudley Road. He used a chart to show the distance from the population center and geographic center to each of the proposed sites (the Bavarian in Covington and land available on 3L Highway in Independence): it is 11.14 miles and 23 minutes to the Bavarian from Independence and 1.39 miles and 2 minutes to a hypothetical site in Independence. From the subdivision in Edgewood, it is 5.4 miles and 13 minutes to Covington and 7.24 miles and 16 minutes to Independence.

"Most importantly, this is the area where the vast majority of future growth is projected to occur," Reinersman said of his city. "Shouldn't that be of primary consideration when choosing a site to serve citizens, in your words, Judge, for the remainder of the century?"

Reinersman applauded the progress in Covington. "I love everything that is happening in Covington. I applaud their efforts and have never seen those efforts take hold like they are right now," he said. "I do feel like, however, the urban core has a great deal of support already. I don't feel like we have the same thing in Independence." Reinersman noted the efforts of the Catalytic Fund in development projects and the payroll tax from government agencies. He also challenged the cost. "Right off the top there is the approximately $4.5 million price to acquire the site. It sounds to me like that is essentially a land acquisition cost. I know you have indicated that you want to make every effort to incorporate the existing building but it sounds like much of it will have to be new. First, the viability of renovating the existing building has to be questioned. There's a reason that building has sat vacant for so long."

The mayor calculated the cost to be roughly $1 million an acre, and argued that a site on Turkeyfoot Road where Independence had courted the Northern Kentucky Health District to move would have sold at $160,000 an acre, and that some acreage near the county jail already owned by the county cost about $34,000 per acre.

Courthouse in Independence to be renovated

Independence's government center, an historic courthouse in need of repairs, will soon receive attention, Knochelmann said. It won't, however, be the site of a newly constructed Kenton County Administration Building as desired by Reinersman. "I believe it would be worthwhile to look into constructing a new building attached to the existing courthouse in Independence, the iconic symbol of Kenton County," Reinersman said. "I believe that adjacent properties could be acquired for a lower price that what is proposed here."

Knochelmann said that it was likely that the county would have possibly chosen a new site in Independence for its main operations were the Bavarain property, with its access to the interstate and ample surface parking, not available. There was also another site on the MLK corridor in Covington under consideration, but the owner was not interested, the judge/executive said. 

"We will be investing in the Independence courthouse," Knochelmann said. "It's one of those burdens we have with two courthouses. We know we can't cut off either arm and we have to nurture both."

County Commissioner Beth Sewell, a Covington resident, said that the need to keep the main government center in Covington is related to transportation. Independence is not as accessible to county residents who rely on public transportation as the Covington site currently is or the Bavarian site would be. Commissioners Jon Draud, of Lakeside Park, and Joe Nienaber, of Ft. Wright, also expressed sympathy for Reinersman's remarks, but ultimately joined Sewell in voting to acquire the Bavarian site. Knochelmann was "present, not voting", a procedural move that he deployed because of his ownership of a nearby building and because his name is on an unaffiliated business next to the Bavarian site. 

Covington Mayor Sherry Carran also expressed her support for Reinersman. "I have the utmost respect for Mayor Reinersman. He's been a very good mayor for Independence," Carran said. "He's doing his job here, but we all know as elected officials that one of the hardest things to do is coming to a decision and balancing all the needs and all the interests."

Carran thanked the county for its decision to acquire the Bavarian site.

"You are saving a signature structure that means a lot to Covington and to Northern Kentucky as a whole," she said. "It is important that you keep a presence here in Covington.

"The relationship that the city has with the county now is the best that I can remember. There are a lot of things on the horizon because we are working together."

At one time the city and the county were exploring the possibility of a shared government campus. The City of Covington vacated its longtime tower to make way for the Hotel Covington development and is currently renting a space on Pike Street with the anticipation that a new home will be constructed as part of the forthcoming Duveneck Square residential and commercial development downtown. The county required surface parking lots which are not part of that project.

Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher