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Exclusive: New Details on The Hotel Covington

"This project couldn't be more a part of our DNA at the Salyers Group. Sometimes the scale terrifies us but we couldn't be more excited."

Guy van Rooyen, president of the Salyers Group (and CEO of Covington-based Donna Salyers' Fabulous Furs), thrilled the room while, for the first time, sharing images and new details about the ambitious Hotel Covington project during a luncheon hosted by the Covington Rotary Club.

Most exciting was the news that, "we're really close to being able to swing hammers".

The Hotel Covington is a more than $25 million development that will turn City Hall, the former Coppins department store building, into an independent, luxury boutique hotel with an eye on redefining the experience of Downtown Covington's Madison Avenue.

The project was announced with much hoopla last October but since then news of the advancement of the plans have only emerged in a slow trickle. That changed Tuesday afternoon as van Rooyen presented slide after slide of renderings of the interior of what could be the most significant addition in a generation to this downtrodden city on the cusp of a new beginning as it approaches its two hundredth birthday.

He asked that the images not be published yet but expect to see them publicly soon.

Though a walk or drive today down the city's most important street reveals stretches of empty storefronts, various elements of riffraff, and some neglected structures, there are pockets of hope. New businesses and renovated living spaces are emerging and the city's generous incentive packages for developers and new entrepreneurs aim to lure even more.

But nothing could be a bigger shot in the arm for Downtown than The Hotel Covington.

Nothing except maybe a newly established urban campus for a college and Downtown Covington is going to have that, too. Gateway Community & Technical College is on the verge of swinging hammers of their own on an $80 million campus in the urban core.

The Downtown Covington so many people have waited to see is on its way.

The struggles of Downtown Covington are not lost on the Salyers Group, which is developing the hotel with Chicago-based Aparium Group, but the firm succeeds in spite of them. Its Madison Events Center attracts tens of thousands of people annually, Fabulous Furs is an internationally celebrated brand, and Fabulous Bridal towers in its repurposed corner building luring brides-to-be from all over the region to score their gowns.

"Sometimes you have to plant a flag and say, this is going to be the catalyst," van Rooyen told the Rotarians. But by planting a flag he doesn't mean the hospitality lingo of building a hotel that assumes the identity of an established brand, even though potential lenders in the concept's earlier stages urged the Salyers Group to do so.

"We drew a line in the sand," van Rooyen said. "This has to be homegrown. It has to reflect Covington and we've held true to that."

The road to opening The Hotel Covington, which van Rooyen described Tuesday as something that would typically only be seen in New York City or Chicago, has been long. He blamed the so-called "fiscal cliff" deal in Congress for adding the most recent wrinkle. It slowed the disbursement of new market tax credits, a critical component of the hotel's development, he said.

Those tax credits were announced last month and the Cincinnati Development Fund was among the recipients and will soon disburse the needed funds so that the construction can begin. Once started, expect to see more than a few construction dumpsters Downtown. In addition to turning City Hall into a hotel, the firm is developing the former JC Penney on Pike Street (which it also owns) into a new City Hall (city officials and the Salyers Group were working on finalizing the lease as recently as last week). The latest rumored timetable is that the City of Covington would move into its new space in August.

Half a block east of the hotel development is another forthcoming project. The Doctors Building at Seventh Street & Scott Boulevard will soon house several market-rate rental units. The Salyers Group is awaiting word on one of the phases of historic tax credits from the National Parks Service before beginning that work.

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Covington City Hall to become The Hotel Covington

City's future and past connected in hotel project

The length of time it has taken to straighten out the financing and construction plans for The Hotel Covington may have historic roots at the site. Van Rooyen shared a bit of charming hearsay about John R. Coppin, the man who constructed the building starting in 1907 before it opened in 1909 to house his namesake department store.

Van Rooyen said that Coppin was having difficulties financing the completion of the construction project but an auspicious trip to the Latonia Race Track filled Coppin's suit jacket with cash and his spirit with a lasting legacy and now positions Covington for a winning place to show. 

The Salyers Group hopes to pay homage to this tale in some way. Incidentally, van Rooyen has a friend who claims to own the original bar from the long-demolished Latonia Race Track and there is exploration underway on how to incorporate it into the fabric of the hotel.

What is clear is that the high-end department store that called the building home for much of the structure's existence will be reflected in many of the details. "We want to restore it to its original purpose, a great brand department store," van Rooyen said. That doesn't mean racks of clothes and mannequins but it does, however, mean details such as the antique doors with their letter slots and locks that require actual keys. The Hotel Covington will use keys instead of the more common key cards. 

"It will have the same essence of what it used to be," van Rooyen said. While key cards are more efficient, actual keys will "separate us to be the rate leader in the market."

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Construction of the Coppins Building

Luxury finishes with a local touches

The Salyers Group will dress up its new hotel with "uppest" of upscale. "We want to create that 'wow' factor," van Rooyen said. The entrance will be on Madison Avenue where guests will be greeted by reception underneath ceilings eighteen feet high.

The first floor restaurant, which will be inside what was most recently used as the Wedding Mall adjacent to City Hall, will be cut off from the hotel in the mornings to allow for a production of opening it at 11:00 a.m. every day when the revolving doors are activated. "We're big proponents that you shouldn't have breakfast where you have dinner," he said. Breakfast will be served in a smaller first floor area.

The north wall of the restaurant will be made of glass and van Rooyen hopes that diners will have a view of an art installation on the neighboring building. He said that his firm has reached an early agreement with Gateway College, which owns the next door building, to do so.

Local firms will spring into action to install the high end finishes expected to be seen throughout. "This will be what you'd expect to see at a Four Seasons," van Rooyen said. "This is going to be as good as it gets."

"The room in your hotel is your oasis."

The rooms at The Hotel Covington will average in size of 400 square feet, more than what van Rooyen said of the average 300 elsewhere. "We're not putting in a standard hotel. We're putting in a luxury boutique hotel." Covington-based Hub & Weber architects, with the help of a San Francisco-based firm, did the design work.

"Everything we do in this hotel will complement what we do at the Madison," he said. He promises no typical white clothed carts when room service is ordered. Instead, he wants to create an interaction between the hotel's staff and its guests.

Many of those guests will double-up on Salyers hospitality. He said that the many brides who host their wedding receptions at the Madison most frequently ask where to stay and where to eat.

Soon the most common answer will be directly across the street.

Hotel will be for locals as much as guests

Though the idea for the hotel emerged while van Rooyen and partners were analyzing the volume of people that pass through the Madison, it will be designed to make a significant imprint on the behavior of locals, too. "Over ten thousand hotel rooms are generated by the Madison, eighty thousand people go through our doors each year," he said.

"So we know the footprint is there. We know that when you build it they will come because we have demonstrated that."

As for the people already here, "All of you who have an innate caring about what we're doing, you don't have to stay at the hotel." But he does invite you to eat and drink if not sleep there. "We want to embrace the fact that we are in an urban area. Time may have changed. Retail may have moved to strip malls but there's an urban renewal coming."

"We need a hotel that reflects that renaissance."

Van Rooyen said he hopes to "activate the space" with a focus on having visitors at street level. He also hopes to gain permission to allow for outdoor drinking up the northeast corner of Seventh & Madison. The hotel will feature an accessible rooftop with sweeping views of Covington and Cincinnati but, "the minute you put people on the roof you cut them off from where the action is supposed to be."

The rooftop will be reserved for special events.

The people of Covington will also help solidify the identity of the region through the hotel experience. "I hate to use catchy words," van Rooyen said after presenting the concept of No-So, meaning that the city is where north meets south, "but it merely reflects what we're about."

"(Northern Kentucky) is not horse racing, it's not bourbon, it's not southern hospitality. It's just a little bit of that. This has to be and will be a true Northern Kentucky product."

"I've lived here for ten years," said the South African native, "and I couldn't be more all-in. When people ask me where I live, I say Northern Kentucky. They say, 'what's that? You mean Kentucky?' We're a little state within a state."

A catalyst ready to compete

Guests at The Hotel Covington will be encouraged to utilize its access and proximity to the city's other entertainment amenities and Cincinnati both through traditional and forthcoming paths, such as the Licking River Greenway & Trails. 

The hotel also aims to spur other entertainment and destination options by triggering more development along Madison Avenue. 

It's a lot riding on a boutique hotel but if its stoic logo is any indication (a proud, traditional "H" with two "Cs" with their backs to each other on top of the "H" with a hint of a Steart Iron Works Fence underneath), the development is ready for the challenge.

That challenge includes the 21 C boutique hotel in Downtown Cincinnati and the announcements that at least two more such developments are on the way across the river.

"21 C, for us, is a museum first and a hotel second," van Rooyen said. "We're thrilled they are in the market. We're going to be competitive in the market place but we're going to be nimble. It's going to be a very analytical approach to rates but we're going to be competitive."

Six to eight weeks is the time frame van Rooyen offered for work and the competitiveness to begin. "Essentially, this project is shovel-ready."

Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News

Photos: Guy van Rooyen discusses The Hotel Covington/RCN