Hey, FC Cincinnati! Northern Kentucky is Ready for You! Apparently. Maybe.
Don't worry, FC Cincinnati.
If the City of Cincinnati and Hamilton County can't figure out how to help you build your dream stadium that you need to land a spot in Major League Soccer's expansion, Newport, Kentucky is standing by.
And it is ready for you.
You can never be too sure in Northern Kentucky.
Hey, FC Cincinnati, if you're not too familiar with Northern Kentucky, here's a quick Cliff's Notes warning: If you think dealing with city politicians in Ohio is difficult, wait till you find out just how many of those we have over here on the southern side of the Ohio River.
To keep it simple, we'll just focus on NKY's "urban core", since we hear you're looking for an urban site.
Southbank Partners is made up of six "urban" cities, Covington and Ludlow in Kenton County, and Newport, Bellevue, Dayton, and Fort Thomas in Campbell County. They are all contiguous and are currently working together to create an 11.5-mile riverfront recreational trail known as Riverfront Commons. There are little non-connected pieces of it up and down the river to serve as a visual example of how challenging, er, adventurous(!) it can be to work with local governments in Northern Kentucky.
If any region knows local government, it's Northern Kentucky. We seemingly have thousands of them for your enjoyment.
In the six Southbank cities (and their two, yes two, tiny counties), there is a combined population of about 80,000 people, or about 220,000 fewer than in Cincinnati proper. But, what we lack in population, we make up for in elected officials!
Whereas the Queen City has nearly 300,000 people, nine city council members, and one mayor, we have 80,000 people in those six cities with thirty-eight, yes thirty-eight, elected officials. But that's just at the city level. Each of the six cities has its own school district, too, so there are also thirty, yes thirty, elected members of six boards of education, all within this tiny stretch of land that has 80,000 people in it.
And we haven't even gone deep into the suburbs or counties, yet. We'll save that for next semester.
But, anyway, back to the point of this, FC Cincinnati.
We know you've been two-timing across state lines, flirting with the city that gave you your name, and the sweeter, younger, more charming southern belle known as Newport. Her sexy swagger is part sweet tea, part straight bourbon. She used to be a bad girl, but now she's got it together and has this really interesting swath of land at the confluence of her two rivers.
Yes, two rivers.
Which reminds us, FC Cincinnati, if you hear anything about the Licking River Greenway & Trails project - which is not the Riverfront Commons project - and which includes the four cities of Covington, Newport, Taylor Mill, and Wilder (twenty-two elected officials between those four small cities!) - will you let us know? The River City News believes that that amenity would also serve as an economic catalyst for the region and would serve any Northern Kentucky stadium well, too.
FC Cincinnati, we know you have connections in high places, higher than even RCN could reach.
So, we're curious about who you've been talking to over here in Newport.
The River City News started asking around over the past two weeks about how the region is preparing for the possible development of having a major league sports team playing within it. This is unprecedented, uncharted territory. Surely any number of our one million city council people (OK, that's an exaggeration, but for the love of God, we have too many of these things...) is working directly with you on what this stadium would look like.
I mean, it's not like you want to construct a new building for your Arby's franchise, or something. That only takes a year's worth of committee meetings and public hearings in Bellevue (Seriously. Look in our archives.). But a stadium in Newport? A stadium? For a major league sports team? I mean, we should be well into the planning for that, right? Seems like that could take a long time.
In fact, some Cincinnati media outlets reported that Newport officials are negotiating or working with your soccer club, which RCN found weird because we are typically the only media that hangs out in these city buildings looking for scoops, and no elected official seems to know anything.
No elected official in Newport knows anything about anything related to FC Cincinnati.
In fact, just a couple weeks ago, it looked like Newport City Manager Tom Fromme threw in the towel when he released this statement:
The City of Newport understands and respects the decision by the owners of FC Cincinnati to locate its stadium in Cincinnati. We believe that the Ovation site in Newport would have made a tremendous site for the stadium and we continue to promote the site for a major economic development project. FC’s interest in the site confirmed that the Ovation property has great potential for development. With the reworking of the KY 9 corridor with new investment coming into the west end of the city and with the city’s commitment to bringing jobs, investment, visitors and residents to Newport, the Ovation site remains one of the most desirable pieces of property in the entire Midwest.
Newport Mayor Jerry Peluso, who became a local sports-fashion icon with his T-shirt promoting "Kicking on the Licking" to lure FC Cincinnati to his city's shores, said, "There's nothing we can do."
Incidentally, he said that after a ceremony in which Newport and Cincinnati celebrated new borderline markers unveiled on the Purple People Bridge, a new attraction to denote our shared history, collaboration, and historic rivalry (yes, it took the U.S. Supreme Court to tell us where Kentucky ends and Ohio begins... #regionalism).
"The land is privately owned," Peluso said of the Ovation site, that large piece of empty land at the confluence of the Ohio and Licking Rivers that had become an homage to forgotten dreams with its sad, lonely billboard promoting a development that no one believed would ever come. Until one day Kentucky Route 9 was expanded improving access to it.
And until a certain professional soccer team started talking all hot and heavy - even creating a rendering - about putting a soccer stadium there.
Covington-based Corporex owns Ovation and if that company has been talking deep with FC Cincinnati, we don't know the details. The company has been quiet lately, with most of its public announcements lately focusing on its new restaurants at RiverCenter like Butlers Pantry and Biscuits to Burgers.
"(FC Cincinnati) hasn't talked to us as far as any specifics," Peluso said. "The only contact we had with them was when the city manager went to see the announcement of the three (possible) locations and he and I attended the Red Bulls game and that's pretty much it."
And for the past few weeks, all the heavy focus has been on a proposed location in Oakley, but Hamilton County is lukewarm, city council support is not guaranteed, and the Oakley Community Council rejected Mayor John Cranley's $37 million proposal on Sunday night.
So, you're saying there's a chance?
"We don't think we've ever been completely out of the running," said Jack Moreland, president of Southbank Partners. "We think there's always been a possibility, not a probability that we would be able to have the team here in Kentucky."
But what's being done? Where is Northern Kentucky's proposal or package or deal or whatever?
Local officials don't seem to know.
"We have heard there's a great deal of support coming out of Frankfort trying to get it here, so we're encouraged with that," Moreland said. "The location sells itself. We don't have to discuss roads coming through to get you to the stadium because we have a $47 million road that we're building as we speak that will take you to the front door of the stadium."
OK, but what else, you may be wondering, FC Cincinnati.
That's where things get tricky.
Business and development leaders don't know much about the specifics that could be offered, outside of noting that there is already a tax increment finance (TIF) district already in place for the Ovation site, but it's controlled by Corporex, too.
Dan Tobergte, CEO of NKY Tri-ED (FC Cincinnati, this is one of those entities created to help our countless local governments with big development projects like Amazon or DHL or, presumably, stadiums) said that he doesn't know anything about meetings taking place in Northern Kentucky about a proposed stadium in Newport.
"Mostly because it's not a project that Tri-ED is fully engaged in," Tobergte told The River City News. "To the point that we would consider that an active project, I'm not able to really get into any details or any discussions. I have not been at those meetings.
"Sports-related or tourism-related or projects of that type have not been in our sweet spot."
Brent Cooper, president and CEO of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and a cheerleader for Greater Cincinnati regionalism before it was cool, also couldn't say much, except that he loves the team and that the NKY side of the river would support it wherever it landed.
So, that left The River City News to turn to the real power-brokers in Northern Kentucky: The Three Judges.
Who are The Three Judges, FC Cincinnati? Well, yes, it does add to the mystique that surrounds governance of Northern Kentucky, which often operates like a medieval fantasy novel.
In this novel, The Three Judges are the Kenton County Judge/Executive Kris Knochelmann, Boone County Judge/Executive Gary Moore, and Campbell County Judge/Executive Steve Pendery. The title is archaic as they preside over a Fiscal Court (county commission), but they are the top-elected leaders in their respective counties.
The Three Judges are NKY's wise men who are expected to have all the answers. They meet together to approve the tax rate for the Sanitation District. They rotate the chairmanship of Tri-ED. And, perhaps most importantly in a region with so many governments, they have the most direct constituents at the local level.
The River City News talked to Judge/Executive Knochelmann of Kenton County, even though Newport is in Campbell County, because he is currenty the chairman of Tri-ED.
He didn't have much to say.
"It's clear we'd love to see FCC in Northern Kentucky but beyond that...," Knochelmann said. "The games are amazing. The energy is amazing. I would love to see that on the river. It's a phenomenal spot. I think it'd be great for the region as a whole."
But as to specifics that NKY will or can offer? Knochelmann didn't know.
That left us with Pendery.
"There are a couple reasons why you haven't heard much about that," Pendery told RCN. He said that NKY officials have met with representatives from FC Cincinnati, but that Northern Kentucky leaders don't broadcast the every move of a development project the way Cincinnati politicians might, and things have also been quiet because the Ovation site is privately owned.
As for local governments, the creation and approval of the TIF is already complete, and the Route 9 expansion is well on its way, too.
"There are a lot of people that would like to see soccer in Newport and see the stadium there, and we are already all in," Pendery said.
So, FC Cincinnati, if there is a deal on the table, you probably know more than The River City News and the public, and maybe we'll find out more whenever there is some finality on the northbank.
But, we do have some new additions to our resume that are not TIF or road-related. While its own arena undergoes a renovation, the University of Cincinnati men's basketball team is playing its "home" games this season at BB&T Arena at Northern Kentucky University in Highland Heights. That's a pretty big deal for regionalism in general and for sports in particular.
Highland Heights is a city in Campbell County that also has its own city council with seven elected officials and it is home to NKU, but NKU operates mostly independent of it, and the campus also touches Cold Spring, another city with its own city council and seven more elected officials -
- sorry, we promised to save some of this for next semester.
To conclude, FC Cincinnati, here is the message from Northern Kentucky:
If things don't work out in Cincinnati... we are ready for you.
-Michael Monks is the editor and publisher of The River City News
Photo: Ovation site in Newport (RCN)