Construction Commences on Stewart Iron Works Building Transformation
A celebration of the commencement of construction was held Tuesday at the Stewart Iron Works building which will soon be transformed into the new home of the Life Learning Center.
An educational and life-affirming enterprise that offers second chances to those that have fallen on hard times will now give a second chance to an historic Covington building.
The effort was one half of a complicated real estate deal that involved the former Robke Chevrolet site which was owned by Corporex and the city-owned Stewart Iron Works building. In July, the City of Covington announced details of the transaction that would involve, basically, a swap of the properties. The Robke site is now under construction and will eventually house the Kentucky Career Center and other entities in a new city-owned building.
Now two important projects are underway in a part of Covington "in need of investment", said Jeanne Schroer, director of the Catalytic Fund and architect of the plan that resulted in the property swap.
Schroer was called a genius by Corporex Chairman Bill Butler, the man whose idea ten years ago resulted in the creation of the Life Learning Center. "(Schroer) is a genius with a passion. Now there's a dangerous commodity," Butler laughed. "But it worked in this case."
Butler asked to be part of Tuesday's program to announce that the Life Learning Center is in the midst of a capital campaign. The entire project involves a price tag of $3.5 million, some of which will be covered by the sale of the Robke site. Money has been raised quietly over the past several months and Butler said that after receiving a $1 million gift, the Center is left with a balance of $850,000 that it still hopes to raise.
The Life Learning Center is funded privately and takes no government money. It has helped transform the lives of more than nine hundred students, or as the Center calls them, members.
"We're different because it's a long-term platform," Butler said. "I have been for years giving money here and there and everywhere to the social services, which I believe in. But the problem was, we never fixed anything."
That's different with the Center.
"(The Life Learning Center) is a place that provides hope for at-risk people ready to commit to transformational change in their lives," said Ed Hughes, Chairman of the Board at the Life Learning Center and President & CEO of Gateway Community & Technical College. Hughes said that the Center takes an holistic approach to that transformational change with an emphasis on physical, emotional, financial, spiritual, and relationship work.
Once a program is completed, it is the Center's hope that its members find a life of purpose, employment, and a healthy lifestyle.
"We want them to recommit and contribute to the community," Hughes said. "We are a private sector solution to a growing public problem."
As for the City, the Center's plans, which will move it from Fifteenth & Garrard Streets in Austinburg, the new developments mean a better use for two neglected sites.
The City purchased the Stewart Iron Works building in 2009 to preserve the structure which was once home to its namesake company, an enterprise responsible for many of the iconic wrought iron fences and gates still in tact in Covington and across the region, and elsewhere around the globe.
"When we purchased the building, a lot of people questioned that. They thought it was a bad idea," Mayor Sherry Carran said.
The City is currently working through its fourth federal Brownfield grant to clean up the site, efforts that stretch back to 2007. The development "takes a weight off our shoulders," Carran said.
"Having the Life Learning Center here goes well beyond just occupying a vacant building. Its demonstrated success benefits people most importantly, but also supports the City's efforts in attracting jobs by providing the trained and dependable workforce needed to fill those jobs," City Manager Larry Klein said in a statement.
Once redevelopment work is complete, The Life Learning Center will move from its current space and will acquire the building from the City which purchased it with assistance from the Kenton County Fiscal Court.
"This project embodies what a true partnership can bring to a community," said Larisa Sims, assistant city manager and lead project manager. "Not only have we secured a useful and timely service to those citizens in need during a time when Kentucky is experiencing an increase in poverty and unemployment, but we have redeveloped a very large and visible building on one of the most traveled thoroughfares through our Downtown. It was an impossible task but we came together and made it happen."
The Life Learning Center and the Kentucky Career Center projects are within blocks of other new developments that include a renovate headquarters for the Diocese of Covington and a new Walgreens.
Chuck Scheper speaks. Mayor Carran, Schroer, Hughes, and Butler are seated at front.
Covington City Commissioners and Administrators listen at table.
Former Covington Mayor Chuck Scheper, who is also chairman of the Catalytic Fund and Bexion Pharmaceuticals, hosted Tuesday's program after having played an integral role in making the deal happen. It was his idea to propose a possible swap of the two properties.
His personal ties to the building date back to 1937 when his father got his first job there as an office boy making $4 a week. "It's particularly sentimental for me to be here," Scheper said.
"Mayor Scheper brought a team spirit to the city commission and really got us off to a good start and the momentum is still there," Carran said. "The energy of the city is good. It's a young energy and progressive. I love putting in my hours at City Hall because it's good."
Story & photos by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News