Ruby's Slipper Still Fits as Covington Announces Reopening of Waterfront
Jeff Ruby's birthday celebration began Friday with the announcement that his beloved Waterfront restaurant would reopen at Covington Landing where Madison Avenue runs north into the Ohio River.
The iconic Cincinnati restaurateur turned 65, serenaded with "Happy Birthday" before nearly a hundred people standing in an empty office suite inside the RiverCenter towers where it was announced that the City of Covington and Ruby's company had reached an agreement on a lease after nearly two years of back-and-forth.
It was the spring of 2011 when, just a few hundred feet from the announcement site, that the Waterfront broke from its mooring at the foot of Bakewell Street and floated down the river with more than a hundred guests and employees on board. A media frenzy unfolded on live television as Covington fire and police rescued the stranded guests who dined at the floating restaurant under the threat of unusually high water.
Ruby didn't think the restaurant would reopen.
But, "I didn't realize what it meant to people," Ruby said, "and I mean that. I didn't plan on reopening." It was "the pleading of people" that convinced him otherwise.
However, after two decades of floating in Covington, it was not always certain that any possible reopening would happen in Northern Kentucky's largest city. Newport was a possibility and so was Cincinnati. Negotiations between Ruby and Covington were off and on over the years since the restaurant's closure, but then came news on Thursday that a tentative deal had been reached.
Covington Mayor Sherry Carran ceremoniously signed the agreement alongside Ruby at the announcement Friday.
"We've really missed you," Carran told Ruby. "It just feels really good today."
The reopening of the Waterfront, which Ruby said could optimistically be by December, is a shot in the arm for Covington's riverfront redevelopment plans. After creating an enviable mini-skyline of office towers and the Ascent, the stunning residential high rise, the city was poised to be the region's leader in riverfront action.
In the middle of the last decade, however, plans have come and gone or stalled or never materialized while to the north Cincinnati has created a national buzz over its "the Banks" development and to the east Newport has owned Northern Kentucky's share of riverfront buzz.
Covington has watched both its neighbors grow, peering across the Ohio and Licking Rivers from a crumbling riverbank near an abandoned shore.
"Our riverfront redevelopment starts today and it starts now," boasted Covington City Manager Larry Klein, adding that he expects the Waterfront to energize the city's plans for its front door. "There's no bigger way to start."
The city has issued a request for proposals for more development on the riverfront.
No restaurant like it in the nation
"This is the second-oldest restaurant in our group," Ruby said. "It's an impressive piece. It's my second restaurant."
And now it will be bigger and better than ever, said Ruby, who has six restaurants in Cincinnati, Louisville, Indiana, and Covington.
"The new Waterfront, there will be nothing in America like it."
A second barge is on its way to house an expanded dining facility. A winding grand staircase will lead guests through the renovated space that will also feature a rotating piano bar. A dock will be installed to house up to twenty boats. There will be outdoor dining, and an outdoor bar with fire pits.
Ruby has been busy shopping lately, locating antique fixtures in Chicago. His designer will be on the way from Las Vegas soon.
"This will be my most complete restaurant," he said. "The great restaurants in Vegas don't have all these things."
What no other restaurant in the world has is Ruby's celebrated steaks. "We have the best steaks in America. I think that's pretty well voted on by Zagat."
Most important to Ruby is the planned new grand ballroom that will overlook Cincinnati. It will be named for the late Carl Lindner, Ruby's "great friend" and Cincinnati business icon as well as the former owner of the Cincinnati Reds.
City expects return on investment
Ruby expects to pour in at least $1.5 million of his own money toward the Waterfront project, a figure matched by the city to refurbish and maintain the Landing which has been vacant since a former entertainment complex shut down at the site. The work includes involvement of the Army Corps of Engineers, ramping, and debris deflection.
For its money, which will come from the city's capital improvements budget, Covington hopes to see a return on its investment.
The lease is for ten years with three 5-year optional extensions. Ruby will pay $75,000 per year to the city for his new location.
150 new jobs are expected to be created generating payroll tax revenue for the city.
Covington will also share in the Waterfront's profits on a sliding scale. Though there would be no revenue sharing if the restaurant brings in $3 million or less on the year, the city would share 1% of the revenues on $3 - $6 million in sales and 2% of the revenues on more than $6 million in shares.
"He was bringing in over $5 million at his old location and this is a better location," Klein said.
The city will also collect on parking.
During previous negotiations between the city and Ruby, it was learned that the Commonwealth of Kentucky could become involved in the project. While that has not happened yet, it remains a possibility, said former Covington Mayor Chuck Scheper, who led negotiations before his term ended in December.
Ruby credited Scheper as well as the City of Covington, the people of the region, and Corporex, the company behind the development of most of the city's existing riverfront, for cutting the path that led to the restaurant's reopening.
Scheper attended Friday's announcement and is enthusiastic about the Waterfront's reopening.
"I think it's symbolic in a sense that Covington is reopening," Scheper said. He said he recently revisited an old edition of the Cincinnati Business Courier from September 2011. The front page featured Jeff Ruby launching an online survey about whether he should reopen the Waterfront in Newport or Cincinnati. The next page showcased a story about the City of Covington facing bankruptcy.
"We've come a long way in two years," the former mayor said.
The back and forth between the city and Ruby also came a long way in two years and now each entity hopes for a payoff.
"I dont do these things with the purpose of being mediocre," Ruby said. "That's why this has taken so long."
Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News
Photo: Mayor Sherry Carran and Jeff Ruby shake hands after signing the lease on the new Waterfront restaurant/RCN