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Gateway Reaffirms Commitment to Downtown, Will Build Regional Identity

Amid recent concern that Gateway Community & Technical College is bailing on its ambitious Urban Metro Campus in downtown Covington, President Fernando Figueroa affirmed to the college's board of directors last week that the school is staying put.

"I think that because of the way we name our campuses, there is a bit of zip code thinking," Figueroa said during the meeting last Thursday at one of the urban campus's buildings, the Technology, Innovation, and Enterprise (TIE) center on Madison Avenue. "The urban campus is for Covington because it's located in Covington and the Edgewood campus is for Edgewood, and the same thing with Boone."

That misconception is what Figueroa, who took over as president last summer, is what Gateway must address. "Our campuses are themes within a regional strategy for Northern Kentucky. We serve five counties and multiple cities within those counties," he said.

More than four years after former Gateway president Ed Hughes rolled out his impressive plan for the urban campus - spanning many city blocks and including a dozen buildings, some historically restored and others new - the college is faced with the reality that whatever happens downtown, it likely won't look like what the community hoped it would back in 2012. 

Already, the Gateway Foundation - the nonprofit booster arm of the college that raised money to purchase real estate for the urban campus - is in the process of disposing of some of what it bought, and getting out of the real estate game altogether. Last month, Gateway triggered more fears for the future of the urban campus when it announced that some programs were being shifted from Covington to Boone County. Figueroa attributed that change to a "periodic review of enrollment trends and market data" and an effort to provide relevant coursework at the three campuses.

But the college plans to stay and grow in downtown Covington. In addition to the TIE building, Gateway restored an old Citizens Bank building at the corner of Pike Street & Madison Avenue and placed a Barnes & Noble student bookstore there. There are still classes being offered at the Two Rivers building on Scott Boulevard and work is still set to begin on the creative placemaking project dubbed "Electric Alley", an effort to beautify the alley that runs between Two Rivers and TIE.

What happens next, though, is unclear. "We will assess and listen to the needs of the entire service area and be able to adapt and adjust our resources, talents, and programming to maximize our impact on the economy," Figueroa said in a shorted version of a presentation he will give at the Covington Business Council's monthly luncheon on Thursday (to register, click here).

"Instead of looking at them as localized or neighborhood campuses, we are looking at them as having thematics," he said, noting that Boone fits well with the manufacturing workforce, and Edgewood is focused on allied health and nursing, and the urban campus's identity is still being explored.

Figueroa has been at the helm for about six months, but takes over following years of turmoil that included continued clashes between a previous board chair and then-president Ed Hughes, Hughes's resignation, and then two interim presidents. On Thursday, Figueroa will share what he's learned and where the school is going, with a particular emphasis on Covington's central business district which the college was expected to inject with 2,500 to 5,000 students in the coming years.

"The urban campus has been a bit of a challenge because it is not localized with a particular industry or sector, but in thinking about urban and listening to people, a few things have come into clarity for us," he said. "The first, urban is the center. To be in an urban area is to be different than being in the suburbs of an area or an area more spread out.

"I grew up in New Orleans. You have people from different backgrounds, different races, different economic statuses. They come together within the city."

Figueroa said, like New Orleans and its famed Mardi Gras, the River Cities of Northern Kentucky bring people together through festivals and cultural events. "Let's focus on what unites us. Urban has a chance to be the hub, or the beehive is what I'm playing with."

That means, Gateway could attract its own version of TED Talks and other activities that bring students and community members together at the campus.

"A more common language is the thing that also drives me with this," he said. He called out, "the concerns people have about going across the Licking River or the Ohio Ocean, moving from Boone to Kenton. We don't have enough in our region of, Why would I go from one place or another, or do I belong one place or another?

"When we look at the next phase of renovations and what we build out here, that's what is resonating with me."

Board chair Ken Paul said the urban campus suffers from a perception issue because of the sprawling campus plans released four years ago that came with an estimated price tag of $80 million. 

"Covington ain't gonna get the 80 million," Paul said. "Well, that was a very strong number and sometimes there's nothing wrong with thinking big and putting big numbers, bit we need to re-identify what the estimate is going to look like so we can get away from not getting the 80 million number.

"That just isn't gonna happen."

Paul cited the turmoil created by the tension between certain board members and the previous president, and then the two interim presidents who came and quickly went. "We need to bring stability back to this whole area," Paul said.

The board of directors, the Gateway Foundation, and Figueroa will attend a retreat together on Saturday, March 18 to formalize and unite their visions. 

Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher