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Casper Draws on Owensboro to Inspire Covington Development

When Owensboro, Kentucky opened its new $178 million riverfront development, Covington City Commissioner Steve Casper was there - and green with envy. At Tuesday's night's City Commission meeting, Casper reflected on his visit to the Kentucky city two hundred miles away but along the same river that sits ready for development in Covington. "They did it because it has become an economic engine for them," Casper said, noting Owensboro's forthcoming convention center and two new hotels that are under construction nearby. Though it took more than a decade to complete, Owensboro was able to finance the project through public and private investments, most notably a large increase on insurance premium tax rate at both the city and county level which generated $80 million. "I'm not proposing," Casper said, noting that the move was controversial in Owensboro. An article in The New York Times that highlight that Kentucky city's success on the riverfront also noted that of the seven county commissioners that approved the plan, only two remain in office.

But when the new park opened at the end of August, there was very little complaining to be heard and the park was celebrated as a huge achievement in the larger plan to revitalize that city's Downtown area. What most impressed Casper were the three water features built by the same Los Angeles-based company that built the famed Bellagio Fountain in Las Vegas and many others around the world. So impressed by the work, Casper, while on business in San Diego, drove to Los Angeles to tour Wet's facilities. While he sees a future Covington riverfront having water features he also envisions a large scale fountain in Mainstrasse Village's Goebel Park that would boast of lights, music, and water that danced, an effort to draw more families to the underused green space and to boost business for nearby restaurants and shops. 

As for the riverfront, Casper, who is challenging fellow City Commissioner Sherry Carran in November to become Mayor, knows that Owensboro relied heavily on earmarks from the federal government with help from the office of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell who was directly responsible for securing $40 million, Casper said. The first-term commissioner and Mayor Chuck Scheper met with a representative from the Senator's office Wednesday morning and toured some of Covington's riverfront. An ideal project would begin in what is known as Covington's Riverfront West which is just west of Covington Landing where the Waterfront restaurant is expected to reopen soon. Unlike the time when Owensboro sought funding, however, earmarks have become a four letter word in Washington, DC. An optimistic note from the Senator's office however is that they employ what Casper said was a "superior grant writer" to help in seeking private and public dollars for any dreams Covington may have.

Some money is already pledged. Philanthropist Oakley Farris has promised his own earmark of $100,000 as soon as $200,000 is set aside from elsewhere for the project. Covington solicited plans for development of Riverfront West earlier this year and received only three responses, two from the same company that eventually withdrew them. The project remaining on the table as a possibility was submitted in tandem between Waterfront owner Jeff Ruby and developer Bill Butler. Phase one only included the reopening of the Waterfront restaurant which was swept away from its mooring last year and has been closed ever since. Some of the grander plans for phase two include a marina and a pier but will only happen when funding is available. The IRS, which has a large operation in Covington inside a dated one-level behemoth of a structure, will also need to move into a more vertical structure so that the land upon which it sits can be incorporated into the larger project.

Casper doesn't know yet what a newly envisioned Covington riverfront would look like but knows that it is time to start drawing up plans to move forward. "I'm big on public/private partnerships," he said. "And there may be a way we can coordinate that through a TIF (tax increment financing, a system of borrowing money on future tax revenue)."

Photo: ​New riverfront development in Owensboro. Photo taken by Steve Casper. Used with permission.