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Part Two: Commission Candidates at Covington Business Council

If you missed Sunday evening's post about the candidates for Covington City Commission making their case to the Covington Business Council, click here. In that post, they discuss the Center City Action Plan, the proposed Business Improvement District, and other Downtown development issues. Only six of the eight candidates submitted responses to the CBC survey in writing, while only five attended last Thursday's forum. Below, you will find more of the written responses provided.


What should Covington's community development/economic development efforts look like? A strong department inside City Hall or a public/private partnership?
Chuck Eilerman: From experience working with development staffs in other communities, I have seen the effectiveness of strong programs within City government. However I appreciate our current fiscal limitations andthe availability of strong outside entities, and I support public/private partnerships. Our development structure should be evaluated over time as we measure results and our fiscal capacity improves. I would pursue the broadening of our in-house staff as feasible with trained and experienced new personnel.
Steve Frank: We just settled this question during the reorganization vote on City Government on Tuesday Night, September 19’Th. Our economic development plans will be built around strong Public Private Partnerships
which include in its foundation our relationship to both the Covington Business Council, but hopefully one day the Latonia Business Association. City Hall’s function will be to make it easy to get approvals, outreach, working on Grants and TIF Districts and working with the State to get incentives. Rainmaking will be much more in the hands of the Urban Partnership and one day perhaps, a revised Port Authority as we witnessed Cincinnati doing when Ms. Brunner addressed the CBC. Establishing Strong Public Private Partnerships was a core tenant of Covington’s Ten Point Plan.
Greg Paeth: The city reorganization plan announced last week seems to set the stage for establishing a strong department inside City Hall. As I said in my answer to the questions about start up businesses and larger corporations, I would like to see the city find an aggressive, ambitious economic/community development director who wants to build a resume’ quickly by making a few splashy deals that bring new businesses, new development and new jobs to the city. If that director is gone after two or three years of accomplishments, life will go on in Covington. Let’s find the right person and give him or her the latitude to make some offers that no serious business person could refuse. Two percent of something is far better than 100 percent of nothing.
Mildred Rains: Partnership. Many city staff making decisions have never owned even a small business, and sometimes elected officials do not have the needed experience although they may indicate otherwise publicly.
Bringing City staff, elected officials and the business community to the table is the best rounded approach.
Chip Terry: A public/private partnership. Over the past 10 to 15 years, the City has performed 20 studies in an effort to formulate actionable plans, but no concrete, discernible progress has been made. I believe to move
forward it is imperative to partner with a substantial and sustainable organization that is designated for economic/community development. The City should focus its effort on establishing a governmental framework that creates an environment that “gets out of the way” of such entities and allows them to do the work. The City should also refocus its attention on public safety and infrastructure needs .A perfect place to begin this concept appears to be through the execution of the Center City Action Plan, in which a private / public partnership philosophy is laid out.
Michelle Williams: I think we need both at this time, a strong group of commissioners committed to economic development and committed to working with the private sector to create strong partnerships.
Covington is burdened with the highest payroll tax rate in the region. How would you address this?
Eilerman: I believe the City is proceeding properly in gradually reducing our occupational tax structure, keeping a balance between that goal and the maintenance of critical services. As a practical matter, many larger deals involve abatements and deferrals which mitigate the impact of our stated rate.
Frank: We have already begun to address it. Covington has announced its first reduction in payroll taxes in history to hopefully take effect on January 1’st. While small, it is a statement that as we develop funds, we will try to increase the competitive advantage to doing business in Covington. I will also state that we held the line for two years of my term on property taxes and this year, cajoled the school board into not increasing for the first time since 2001.
Paeth: In an effort to distance itself from that “highest payroll tax” label, the city commission recently voted to lower the rate from 2.5 percent to 2.45 percent. Saving a nickel on every $100 of income isn’t going to create a stampede of businesses to Covington. But it does signal that the city is well aware of how the payroll tax rate can be a huge disadvantage when businesses are weighing a variety of factors before they make a decision about opening up shop. Lowering the payroll tax – temporarily – to entice a new business to locate in Covington can be an important incentive. But at a time when the city is facing major financial hurdles, lowering the payroll tax any further could have dire consequences. If you believe that the “highest payroll tax” label is troublesome, think about how the “bankrupt” label would affect the city.
Rains: The slight reduction is not a bad step when you offset the lost revenue for existing businesses and the potential gain of new businesses. I would like to see more aggressive approaches to offering other incentives, such as tax moratoriums, as well as not forgetting to nurture the businesses we have to keep them as contented as possible. Sometimes businesses will relocate due to better incentives elsewhere but they should never leave due to neglect on the part of the economic development department.
Terry: While it is important to become competitive in regard to the payroll tax rate, it is also imperative to recognize the impact reducing the rate will have upon revenues; especially during difficult economic times. I believe a gradual reduction in the rate is a prudent practice. During this time of less competitive rates, it is important to promote the value of the current rate in relation to the services that are provided. Additionally, it is also important, during this transition time to attract small and medium businesses. These businesses, with fewer employees, mainly focus on obtaining start up incentives. As revenues increase due to the increased number of businesses and associated growth of those businesses, the tax rate can be incrementally lowered. As the rate comes down, larger corporations should be enticed to consider Covington, thus providing a good balance of small, medium and large sized businesses and stabilizing the payroll tax disparity we now experience.
What role could you play in improving the collaboration efforts between existing Covington businesses in terms of marketing and special events?
Eilerman: I would support collaboration as to marketing and special events. This is an area best led by our business organizations (such as CBC, LBA, and MSVA) and by professionals in the field. I have worked with most of these groups, and would work with City staff to facilitate introductions and ongoing cooperation.
Frank: Suzanne Getty’s and our marketing person to be named later’s role is to market and bridge gaps in our communication with businesses.
Paeth: If and when the city develops an overall marketing strategy, I believe members of the city commission should work with Covington businesses to sell them on the importance of a unified marketing strategy that could have long-term benefits. Simply approving a marketing strategy isn’t adequate. Businesses have to have a true commitment to the plan for it to work.
Rains: Resident and City employee for 30+ years. I have many contacts throughout the City and have developed a reputation as being knowledgeable and easy to work with.
Terry: I have already taken action to do so. I feel that to improve our current situation, we need to ensure that we retain existing business and develop ways to help them grow. On an individual basis, I personally patronize local business as much as possible. I also share, thru word of mouth and social media, good experiences that I have had with existing Covington businesses, and I encourage other citizens and city leaders to do the same. Additionally, in order to get an understanding of best practices, I have made contact with other entities that have shown great progress in developing and sustaining a vibrant and growing business environment. Finally, I believe the purpose of Renaissance of Covington is to perform such functions. If that is still the case, I would recommend a more aggressive application of their approach and concepts.
Williams: ​ I think that in our plan to attract new business should also be the plan to help existing business strive here in Covington. A new idea would be to start with a Mobile App for the City of Covington, KY. , that would list current business, restaurants and promotions as well as events and entertainment around town. We start with what we have and build from there.
Covington has problems with littering and loitering. How should the City address these problems?
Eilerman: Littering is a priority of neighborhoods, and - downtown - the proposed BID district. Loitering is best addressed by review of appropriate legislation and thoughtful enforcement by the CPD. In my experience, some of what is characterized as loitering can actually be appropriate socialization for those with limited options. Ultimately the best remedy for inappropriate loitering is revitalized neighborhoods.
Frank: The BID district is one of the essential answers. They have already made an impressive difference in cleaning up litter and graffiti in the Downtown Urban Core. These efforts have to be mirrored at all important entrances and through streets in Covington. BID’s may also be able to have enacted on their behalf more stringent ordinances such as anti loitering as long as they are not unconstitutional. That said, the primary problem creating the loitering and other issues is joblessness in the urban core and a heroin epidemic. We as a broader community all have to face these facts whose solution is beyond the capability of any one town.
Paeth: Creating the BID seems to be an appropriate way to address the litter issue inside of the downtown area where property owners would pay the special assessment for enhanced maintenance services. The City of Cincinnati’s “clean and safe” campaign is spearheaded by what Cincinnati describes as downtown ambassadors, friendly folks who are there to answer questions, offer directions and extend a helping hand to downtown visitors in addition to performing maintenance chores. There’s no secret that Covington is borrowing heavily from the 3CDC/Downtown Cincinnati Inc. model so there’s no reason why Covington’s BID employees couldn’t play a similar role in making Covington as inviting as possible to visitors. Downtown loitering could be addressed by BID employees as well as the police department. The approach doesn’t need to be confrontational. People loitering on street corners or in front of the library need to be reminded that downtown Covington is not a place to congregate and hang out hour after hour every day of the week.
Rains: The first point is that while the City has a role in addressing some of these issues, many problems are a community issue to resolve. The City has limited resources, constitutional restrictions, unlimited responsibilities, etc. For example, littering is a problem we all have a hand in resolving. How many residents and businesses have participated in the Adopt A Spot program that is sponsored by Keep Covington Beautiful? The answer is: very few. This program costs nothing and has tremendous potential for success by nothing more than each of us picking up litter in a predetermined area on a regular basis. As it pertains to loitering for the purposes of criminal activity, timely and accurate reporting to the Police Department is imperative. We need to continue changing the downtown culture, however, by figuring out our identity and utilizing resources to have the buildings and businesses reflect that identity. Currently we do not know that identity so residents congregate during the day (and evening) on our main thoroughfares with little productive means.
Terry: First, concerning the litter issue, it starts with us. Anytime we find litter, we should pick it up if it safe to do so. If there is a large amount of trash, contact Code Enforcement via the Solid Waste Coordinator. Be proactive and involved in the process. Another great resource is Keep Covington Beautiful. As a commissioner, I would encourage citizens to get involved with the program through CGN. Finally, it is important to have ordinances that aggressively address the issue, with applicable penalties. Loitering is a difficult issue. Many ideas have been tried. This issue will only be remedied if it is addressed as part of an overall economic development plan. As part of the plan stakeholders will have to work together to find creative ways to prevent loitering. It may be prudent to create a stronger alliance with the various social service agencies and shelters, and work with them to develop programs thru which people can be educated about the detrimental nature of loitering. This situation dictates that a team be put together to research best practices from across the country, as this is not just a Covington issue.
Williams: I believe that enforcing of codes and laws are necessary with littering and loitering. Many neighborhood groups work many volunteer hours to help keep their neighborhood clean, and to have people hang out and throw trash on the street is not fair to the homeowners or renters. The city should place more waste receptacles in areas that are need them, and follow up on city employees who job it is to maintain these areas. Loitering in areas should not be tolerated and can be handled by neighborhood watch programs that work closely with the police department.
The Police Chief believes that his officers are both public servants and public ambassadors and should strive to be respectful and responsive. How would you propose ensuring that all City employees have and present a positive attitude to the public?
Eilerman: I believe the Commission and administration should make commitment to this concept a priority, with specific training and encouragement of department heads. I would encourage group meetings/
convocations for all City employees (perhaps at the Convention Center) to communicate this commitment and provide training and support materials. The concept of customer service, respecting residents and welcoming visitors, should be established as fundamental and high performance expectations made clear to all our employees. I would engage Chief Jones in planning this program.
Frank: There are days when I myself have that problem. People who live in high stress situations are not always at their best when facing issues and complaints from the public. That said, building better rapport with
citizens is still the best way to get information and cooperation that leads to solving and preventing more crime in our community.
Paeth: I have not witnessed first-hand any public incident that tells me that police officers are being disrespectful and unresponsive. Officers I have talked with in the past made it clear that there were serious morale issues during the tenure of the previous chief. I believe that the appointment of Spike Jones as police chief may improve the mood of many of the officers and, hopefully, make them more upbeat about working for the city and doing the best job possible. Of course, there’s no way to guarantee that city employees actually have a positive attitude although there are ways to assess whether they are presenting a positive attitude. There have been a few reports about Covington employees who are on duty mouthing off publicly about the city’s shortcomings, its long-running problems and some of its than less-than-desirable residents. That’s not the kind of attitude that’s appropriate for public servants and ambassadors. If this kind of behavior persists, the employee should face disciplinary action.
Rains: All departments need to train their employees to adhere to this standard but I also believe this respectfulness must be demonstrated by appointed and elected officials to the employees as well. The mission of the organization must be consistent and not one that promotes respect in limited circles. Employees are hired to serve the public, but staff in key management positions will get the best results out of the employees by treating them respectfully and with true transparency.
Terry: The most important factor in ensuring such behavior starts at the front door. Hire individuals that fit the values of the organization. Of course, an entity must first determine its values and encourage a culture that embraces those values. Also, everyone in the organization must adhere to the philosophy, including elected officials. If the goal is to ensure public employees are ambassadors of the City, the City must define that role and convey the message in every aspect of its operation. There are a number of current and former employees of the City who possess Master’s Degrees in Executive Leadership and Organizational Change, including the Police Chief. These individuals have the knowledge and expertise to develop hiring guidelines and ongoing training programs specific to such a philosophy. Enlist these individuals, in the form of a cross-functional team, to develop a program. Allow them the latitude to put measures in place to monitor and ensure its effectiveness. The idea and message must become pervasive within the organization. First define and explain what an ambassador is, make that the standard of behavior, hold all individuals equally accountable for their behavior, and constantly reinforce that behavior.
Williams: I think that Chief Jones is doing a great job with moral in his department, and I am sure that this effort will continue. I think that all city employees are ambassadors and should always present the city in a positive way.
Our current zoning code is complex and often irrational (i.e. - houses that are deemed commercial and commercial buildings declared residential.) What do you propose to make zoning more rational and development-friendly?
Eilerman: I propose zero-based zoning going forward. As a commercial realtor and a member of the Kenton County Planning Commission, I have seen an array of dysfunctional aspects of our current set-up (houses deemed to be offices, commercial buildings classified as residential, entire swaths of the City zoned in a fashion to make longstanding appropriate uses “non-conforming”). I am advocating a process (perhaps with NKAPC technical support) to establish and articulate the fundamental purposes we intend to achieve with our zoning, and then prepare an entirely new plan designed as simply as possible and eliminating stumbling blocks to new development and investment.
Frank: Zoning has been an unmitigated disaster in the city and needs to be redone. While we are currently pushing through new major amendments to our codes; the last go round in 2006 muddied the water terribly. The highest priority is for the city to get its recent reorganization to take hold and then to focus on deepening its economic development relationships. Once that is done, its time for a ground up review of all things zoning.
Paeth: Although there may be some strange quirks in the zoning code, I think that overall it’s rational, logical and provides important protections for property owners who are concerned about what is – and isn’t – allowed on the property next door. I don’t think that the code can be accurately described as an impediment to development. There are avenues of appeal open for anyone who believes that a piece of property is not zoned appropriately.
Rains: The Code was completely overhauled the year I retired as Director and I would not recommend scrapping it and starting over due to the expense and time involvement. A better strategy would be to continue initiating well thought out text amendments with input from the business community regarding matters that affect them.
Terry: A complete review of the zoning system is necessary. It may be more advantageous to start from zero. Systematically reconstruct and simplify current zoning regulations. This is a situation where all the stakeholders should be brought together and a comprehensive approach developed that will be mutually beneficial to the city and developers. Collaboration and accountability are key.
Williams: I would propose that the new commission look into this issue and come up with a plan that would be rational and easy to understand to everyone involved in the process.
Ultimately, Covington's vitality rests with the G of CVG - Growth. Given our precipitous decline in population over the past decades, what specifically do you propose to accomplish new growth?
Eilerman: I support an aggressive program engaging the development community and resources such as local banks, the Catalytic Development Fund, the Cincinnati Development Fund (CDF), the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), and the Port Authority to stimulate an array of new construction, partly utilizing opportunities represented by the City’s own inventory of vacant or underutilized real estate. We have seen the extraordinary accomplishments of the City Of Cincinnati, 3CDC and others in areas such as Over The Rhine. We can emulate much of that success here by noting their strategies and incorporating more of the tools they are using so effectively, such as Tax Increment Financing and New Market tax credits.
Frank: We have been working closely with Jeanne Schroer of the Catalytic Fund and Major Developers to begin revitalization of large areas of town such as Jackson Square and to bring in new owner occupied housing. We let a great opportunity slip through our fingers this past year when I introduced the operator of Citirama who is currently orchestrating the sale of 24 new homes in Northside in Cincinnati to Covington’s Community Development Department. That Citirama could have been here. That is didn’t happen is one of the reasons why we have chosen to separate Housing from Economic Development. One of the missions of the housing department is to begin to operate a land bank through the Catalytic Fund so we can get blighted properties worth saving quickly back into private hands and those unable to be saved, condemned. The last and most important piece is that we have to turn our public schools around. It is our young people who are leaving this town in droves because they do not want their children receiving a substandard education. As of today, only 3% of our graduates are deemed ready for advanced education by the State’s own low standards. Our ACT score for Covington, 15.8, while better; falls far behind even our neighboring cities of Newport, Bellevue, Dayton, and Ludlow.
Paeth: Older cities that still work today have attracted a critical mass of new residents who are willing to live in the city, shop nearby and patronize restaurants and bars that are part of the urban experience. My number one priority is improving the quality of life in Covington by rebuilding our neighborhoods, making them as appealing as possible by requiring property owners to meet the existing housing code and, if necessary, revamp the code so that it demands that property owners meet higher standards. Code enforcement has to be tough, aggressive, thorough and timely. Increasing the percentage of home ownership in the city is vitally important, but no one is going to invest in a home if they’re not convinced that the owner of the property next door or across the street will take care of their property. Sometimes property owners and good tenants make the right decisions and take care of their property without any prompting. Other times the city has to get tough and demand compliance.
Rains: I am a big believer in quality rather than quantity. If we continue bringing in more low income residents we have a disproportionate number of those with less means outnumbering those with more means. A healthy city has a higher percentage of residents that are not in poverty than who are, and therefore those doing well can help the less advantaged as an altruistic gesture.
Terry: Encourage Mayor Scheper to remain involved in the Economic Development process after leaving office; Restructure Economic Development by contracting a private firm to spearhead economic development within the city or develop a strong private / public cooperation in developing housing and business opportunities; Refocus our efforts on the city’s Strategic Plan and Center City Plan; Concentrate economic development efforts on attracting small and medium size businesses that are locally owned and operated; Provide the owners and employees of locally owned businesses attractive housing opportunities/incentives to promote a local community based business/resident environment; Balance the focus between federally guaranteed housing programs with programs that concentrate on developing public/private collaboration; The city’s greatest resource is the outstanding stock of unique and beautiful historic buildings, but attempt should be made to replace non-historic structures, within historic areas, with new structures that match the aesthetics of the neighborhoods; Increase the use of the incubator and catalytic fund concept; Don’t try to compete with Cincinnati; Focus on the City’s strengths (history, architecture, great individual neighborhoods).
Williams: I have a strong economic outlook and I believe that Covington has the potential to grow very fast. However I don’t think that there is no one plan that could cover Covington’s uniqueness. We have a new housing development project in the Eastside Neighborhood and I hoping developers see the growth opportunities the way we see them.
What do you think is the best plan of action to ensure that Gateway Technical & Community College is fully funded for its planned urban campus?
Eilerman: The best plan of action as to the continued funding of Gateway College is close collaboration with the State Administration and with the General Assembly – (especially local legislators such as Arnold Simpson, Dennis Keene, and Jack Westwood’s successor) along with strong backing by business and civic groups such as the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and the Northern Kentucky Consensus Committee.
Frank: I am on the Board of the Gateway Technical and Urban Community College Foundation and am part of those who are currently asking major benefactors in our community such as Oakley Farris who has already agreed to donate $500,000 to our efforts. I can tell you that the project is on track and if there is one catalyst that can actually transform the urban core it is the gateway Urban Campus. I plan on being a major donor (though not at Oakley’s level) as well. When fully funded we will be training 3,000 to 5,000 young people in skills and paying trades. That number of students will breathe new life into a tired downtown. We will also be joining with Gateway’s Urban Campus an outreach project from NKU’s College of Entrepreneurship to teach these students how to start their own businesses, hopefully here in Covington.
Paeth: Covington and Northern Kentucky have to speak with one voice in Frankfort about the critical importance of following through and funding the planned $60 million-plus urban campus in downtown Covington. The Covington City Commission, state legislators from the region as well as the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, the Covington Business Council, Southbank Partners and every other organization that’s devoted to improving the region have to convince the House, the Senate and the governor about the wisdom of making this substantial investment in downtown Covington. The importance of this project cannot be overstated. The Gateway plan could prove to be a game changer, a transformative project that could change the face of downtown Covington for the next 50 years.
Rains: Private sponsorship of buildings, wings, projects, etc. are necessary in today’s economy and are quite effective. Bank of Kentucky Arena at NKU is a good example. Gateway needs to, along with working closely with legislators for earmarked funding, consider naming rights for college projects. The joint public/private economic development entity should collaborate on these approaches with Gateway.
Terry: Collaboration with the state and strengthening relationships with local employers that will benefit from the skills being taught at Gateway. It is important to develop and tailor programs that fit the needs of local businesses. This will in-turn encourage employers to assist with funding and lobbying State officials to ensure funding. It may be prudent to put together a team, made up of individuals with expertise in higher education, state affairs, finance and development, to remain focused on this particular issue and to drive discussion on the further growth of the college.
Williams: I think that the City should support Gateway’s urban campus in anyway is can. Education is important for the growth of our city.
There is a desire to expand the NKY Convention Center. How much of a priority is that and how should the city work at securing funding for it?
Eilerman: The expansion of the NKY Convention Center should be an extremely high priority, and the strategy for its accomplishment is much the same as that for funding of Gateway. There are additional groups and businesses to be engaged here (the NKCVB, and hospitality specific businesses). It is important that we maximize the positive benefits of meeting attendance now and in the future by target marketing the offerings of our downtown and facilitating easy access to them, perhaps by such techniques as running special service of the South Bank Shuttle during peak convention activity periods and by showcasing special shows at the Artist Enterprise Center.
Frank: The Convention center expansion is not an isolated event. By my spearheading the charge to save the 4’Th and 5’Th Street exits on the new Brent Spence Bridge which will also include a direct access onto the
Interstate at the Clay Wade Bailey Bridge we have the opportunity to completely redevelop the Covington Riverfront. IRS will go up in a tower freeing up room for the Convention Center to expand. Unlike most other Convention centers in the State, ours actually pays for itself so financing isn’t the issue, it is gaining the space. The whole waterfront redevelopment effort along with the Gateway Urban campus, can allow us to gather the momentum to rebuild Covington into the town we all believe it can be.
Paeth: In my mind, the importance of expanding the Northern Kentucky Convention Center ranks just behind any effort to secure funding for Gateway’s urban campus. Once again, the City of Covington as well as the people and the organizations that I would want to support the Gateway plan would have to demonstrate unity in pushing for the state to provide funding for the project. Expanding the center, of course, is complicated by the fact that the existing site bumps up against the IRS property and the city certainly doesn’t want to make any decisions that might fracture the relationship with the city’s largest employer.
Rains: This is vital in moving the City forward. The City should have its role but as mentioned before this is another project should be undertaken by the joint private/public partnership toward economic development.
Terry: The NKY Convention Center is an important centerpiece of the downtown area and the City should continue efforts to secure funding to expand and improve the Facility. However, at present, the current priority should be to immediately stabilize rapidly deteriorating neighborhoods, which have begun to creep into stable neighborhoods and into our vital commercial areas. Thru appropriate code enforcement practices, the City should aggressively confront the serious issues of blight, neglectful landlords and nuisance properties; especially in our most visible areas. By doing so, I believe those who are inclined to provide funding for improvement projects, such as the Convention Center, will be more easily persuaded to invest in the City. The City must first focus on this issue, improving its image, and on infrastructure deficiencies.
Williams: I do support expanding the Convention Center. I am not sure if it is an appropriate expectation at this time, since I do feel other projects fall ahead of this one, I know this will be a great addition to the City.