In the last forty-eight hours, two high-profile Downtown Covington developments returned to the forefront of local conversation.
A new financing deal to get the Mutual Building project, in which the long vacant 1921 structure will be turned into luxury rental units with first-floor commercial spaces, was approved by the city commission on Tuesday.
On Thursday, Downtown's most prominent project, The Hotel Covington, was the topic of the Covington Business Council's monthly luncheon.
The $27 million project will turn the former Coppins department store building into a boutique hotel. Guy van Rooyen, CEO of the Salyers Group which is leading the development, spoke to one of the largest crowds the CBC has attracted in five years.
The hotel deal was announced in the fall of 2012 and van Rooyen apologized for the delays the project has encountered since. "We were hoping that on this day we would be cutting ribbons," he said.
Incidentally, the Mutual Building, located across the street from the planned hotel, was supposed to be the original site of The Hotel Covington, van Rooyen said. He and Jim Salyers (a developer and van Rooyen's father-in-law) were at an event at the Madison Event Center, also operated by the Salyers Group and across the other street from the planned hotel, when they looked longingly at the Mutual Building from outside.
"We said, you know, we got all these brides and they all want rooms after their event and we have nowhere to put them up that's close and there happens to be a vacant building across the street that happens to be very pretty," van Rooyen said.
Salyers used his commercial real estate development knowledge to guage that thirty-five to forty rooms could be placed in the building, van Rooyen said. But attempts to acquire the building fell through.
In an attempt to keep the idea alive, van Rooyen and Salyers met with then-Covington Mayor Chuck Scheper and Catalytic Fund president Jeanne Schroer. They said, what about the city building? Covington City Hall moved into the Coppins building in 1990 and the city was facing a significant amount of repairs for a building they hardly filled.
The idea worked and action began to get the city moved to the former JC Penney building on Pike Street, also owned by the Salyers Group and used at the time as a bingo hall. It was the second the City would occupy the building. It served as City Hall in the 1980s before the move to the Coppins building.
"We're going to take the old Coppins department store and be a real springboard for development in the Madison Avenue corridor," van Rooyen said. "It will bring us back to those days when Covington was the thriving downtown retail Mecca and Coppins was the grandest retail shop in the state."
The project could really get underway in the spring if it receives its hoped-for New Market Tax Credits from the federal government. The 116-room hotel is expected to create 134 full-time jobs with accommodations on six floors, a first floor full-service restaurant and bar, a fitness room with spa treatments in the basement, and a rooftop terrace.
And it's going to be very nice.
"This isn't a Days Inn," van Rooyen said. "This is an upscale, luxury boutique hotel."
Covington and its troubled, struggling downtown may not at first seem ideal for an independent hotel to be developed. But the Salyers Group attracts tens of thousands of people annually on its own to the Madison Events Center, a natural feeder to the hotel.
"I've been on the road doing presentations to bankers and a lot of them, the first thing they say is, why are you doing a non-flag (non-chain) hotel in Covington?," van Rooyen said. "Because it's awesome and if you can't see that you're missing something."
Applause filled the room where more than 150 gathered for the CBC luncheon.
"I'm not from here as you can gather," van Rooyen said, a joking nod to his Australian accent. "I'm from a little farther south. I've been here ten years and there's something that sticks in your craw, it becomes a part of you."
"How do we convince folks about Covington? First and foremost, the Salyers have been operating here for twenty-five years through some of the poorer times in Covington and they've grown revenue and had success every year. So, it can be done. You just have to have the right business, the right product, and you've got to work."
"We think we're on a huge uptick toward massive development, massive resurgence in the community we operate in," he said.
Partner's success in Milwaukee may be evidence of what's to come
The Salyers Group is developing the hotel with the Chicago-based Aparium Group which has had success with its boutique Iron Horse Hotel in Milwaukee. That location was named best hotel in the country in 2011 and also sets the highest rates in that market.
Van Rooyen believes that The Hotel Covington could surpass the Iron Horse's success because Greater Cincinnati is a better metropolitan region than Milwaukee. While that Wisconsin city draws visitors from Chicago, van Rooyen's analysis indicates that it's mostly the other way around with people going from Milwaukee to Chicago. Cincinnati, on the other hand, draws from other regional cities like Louisville, Lexington, and Indianapolis, he said. The hotel is closer to Great American Ballpark (one mile) than the Iron Horse is to Miller Park (3 miles) and there are more Fortune 500 companies here.
The Iron Horse, which maintains an 83% occupancy rate on the year, is surrounded by a vacant area whereas The Hotel Covington would be surrounded by, well, Covington.
But then, a great deal of the Covington that surrounds the hotel site struggles with chronic vacancy. Van Rooyen sees that as an opportunity.
"There is a significant available building inventory," he said. "You may think it's terrible but that provides opportunity." He expects shop owners to take advantage of the forthcoming activation that the hotel could bring.
"This is a homegrown project," van Rooyen said. "It's very important, as our name suggests, that this reflect Covington. We could have come up with any 'cool' name, but we chose to put ourselves on the map as The Hotel Covington. Yeah, people laughed and said 'Scovington' and all that rubbish associated with it, but this is going to be very reflective of this wonderful city and the culture that it is."
"Business leaders and residents should speak with pride of Covington and not apologize for it. If we put this in Cincinnati, it's going to get buried under all the other stuff. This is about independence. That's what we hear about this little city across the river. We have a chip on our shoulder. We want to do things the hard way because it's the right way. Where it's going to be in two years time is a very different place."
One way to harness the image of Covington is an acceptance that the city and Northern Kentucky as a whole is neither northern or southern. People in Ohio view us as being southern while people elsewhere in Kentucky view us as northern, van Rooyen said. "We're neither of those things."
"To my friends back home, I say I'm from Northern Kentucky. They ask, is that a state? No. Well, why don't you just say Kentucky? Because it's not Kentucky, it's Northern Kentucky."
"We're not horse racing, we're not bourbon, and we're not Skyline Chili but we're elements of all those things, we're influenced by all these things," he said.
There will be elements of those themes in the design but none will be dominant. "We want to be proud of this little oasis in the big Greater Cincinnati area," he said.
Visitors and locals will flock to this hotel
The Hotel Covington will have a strong sense of hospitality and how it's provided to guests, van Rooyen said. There will also be a strong focus on creative presentation of food in the first-floor restaurant that will be constructed where the Wedding Mall currently sits. Each day at 11 a.m. a wall will open to reveal the new restaurant.
The rooms will be large, averaging 415 square feet with high ceilings of twelve to thirteen feet. There will be a rooftop and its accompanying view for special events.
The buzz of the hotel will be at street level, though. And that's what van Rooyen wants.
The hammers will start to swing and this dream will be closer to reality upon the receipt of the tax credits. "We are tremendously excited about where we sit in the pipeline," van Rooyen said. "This is a transformational project and that's what New Market Tax Credit is designed to provide, to go into areas that are struggling, so we feel really good about our application."
"We want folks to be really proud of this project and see it as a community project, not just a private development. And after it opens we expect to see you there often."
The Salyers Group released renderings of the hotel project for the first time on Thursday. You can see them in the slideshow below:
Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News
Photo: Guy van Rooyen/via CBC