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Downtown Streetscape, Electric Alley Projects Face Scrutiny in Covington

A lot of talk but little action continues to be the theme of streetscape project in Covington.

On Tuesday night, the city commission heard from Duke Energy representatives about why plans to improve the appearance of some downtown blocks are connected to the Electric Alley project, which aims to create a pedestrian-vehicular pathway between Fifth and Sixth Streets near Gateway Community & Technical College's urban metro campus.

While the two projects are technically separate, they are connected by their energy needs.

Plans for both entered the city's conversation six years ago during the development of the City Center Action Plan (CCAP) and the revelation of Gateway's original plans for the urban metro campus. In the CCAP, a need to better connect downtown Covington with Madison Avenue was identified as a need, with Sixth Street noted as an obvious route.

Electric Alley sits between Gateway's Technology, Innovation & Enterprise (TIE) building on Madison Avenue and the college's Two Rivers building on Scott Boulevard. Early renderings showcased a pedestrian-friendly area with seating and lighting, offering an attractive connection between Fifth and Sixth Streets.

Since both projects were first discussed, downtown Covington has seen an intense revitalization, but these two projects lag.

In 2015, Electric Alley was awarded $800,000 in state grant funding, and with a $200,000 match from the City of Covington, the $1 million project was slated to begin that summer.

Part of the Electric Alley project would be to place nearby utilities underground. Before the grant funding was awarded to the city, a planned chocolate shop on Fifth Street disappeared due to the presence of a large utility box that prevented facade work.

But when the Sixth Street streetscaping project faced a budget shortfall last year, Mayor Joe Meyer suggested scrapping the Electric Alley project and using the $800,000 for Sixth. Then-city engineer Mike Yeager explained that the grant money was specifically awarded for the Electric Alley project and could not be used for anything else.

The Sixth Street project was awarded $1.6 million in grant funding but the city found itself needing to make up more than $1 million when Hendy Construction's bid came in at just over $2.8 million (on top of $235,000 of utility work by Duke Energy to place poles and wires underground).

In October of last year, Yeager explained to the city commission that the Sixth Street project could not move forward without approval to move forward on Electric Alley.

At the time, the commission opted to delay any action until they could understand why both projects needed to happen together.

Since then, Yeager has been forced out of his position and four more months have passed.

Finally, on Tuesday, an explanation was given.

The issue is a "major circuit" on Scott Blvd., which Bob Hofstetter, of Duke Energy, compared to an interstate highway, noting it as the main line for distribution to the surrounding blocks.

"When we have a circuit like that, we have to maintain that. That's your main artery," said Hofstetter, who also served as Duke's designer when utilities were placed underground on Madison Avenue.

He noted that Duke is asking the Public Service Commission to finance its plan to add a smart grid in the area to eliminate such problems in the future. 

Meanwhile, as the city figures out the scope of the design for the 6th Street project, it may invite Gateway leaders to a conversation about what the college plans to do with its Two Rivers building. Meyer asked whether the city knows what the college's plans are.

Last year, when the mayor questioned Gateway's plans, president Fernando Figueroa responded that the school is committed to its downtown Covington effort. "Gateway supports the Electric Alley project, as evidenced by our continuing commitment to maximize the use of the property on the corner of Scott and Sixth streets, the Two Rivers building. We also plan to open the carport area attached to that building for a gathering space that will be accessible to students and the community," Figueroa said a year ago.

"We are committed to the City of Covington and the entire NKY region.”