Member Login

EXCLUSIVE: After Delay, Madison Theater Expansion Project to Move Forward

Nearly three years after purchasing the building next door, Madison Theater owner Esther Johnson is moving forward with plans to open Madison Live. The project, which had stalled due to funding issues, is back on track thanks to the Northern Kentucky University Small Business Development Center (SBDC), Citizens Bank, and most of all, Johnson’s persistence. 
Working together, the three parties were able to assemble a plan that not only calls for upgrades to the current theater but will enable Johnson to complete construction at Madison Live, an adjoining venue that will give local, lesser-known musical acts exposure and draw hundreds if not thousands of people to downtown Covington each week. 
“The key (for Covington) is getting the traffic here,” said Johnson. “At the Madison Theater we might bring in 1,700 people one night a week but at Madison Live we expect to attract 150-300 people six times a week.”
A much smaller venue than the Madison Theater, Madison Live will host more intimate shows featuring singer-songwriters and up-and-coming bands that have just started to build a following. The venue will also feature a stage on the venue’s rooftop where up to 450 guests can enjoy a concert outdoors.
“The rooftop deck is amazing,” said Rebecca Volpe, director of the SBDC at NKU who helped Johnson move the project forward. “There is nothing like it in an urban core anywhere.”
Although there is much excitement now about the expansion and plans going forward, there had been a lot of frustration surrounding the project over the past couple of years. Determined to get the venue open, Johnson reached out to the SBDC and later approached Citizens Bank with a plan that would benefit not just the Madison Theater, but downtown Covington as a whole. While impressed with the plan, Volpe says that it was Johnson’s passion for the city and her persistence that stood out the most. 
“Esther is relentless in her passion for Covington and her vision for the Madison Theater. She has worked in Covington for decades and is one of the original revitalization pioneers in the city. The issue was mainly the economy. It had nothing to do with the project itself,” Volpe said.
Steve Brunson, president of Citizens Bank which has assisted several small business owners in the city including Johnson and also helped finance the development at the Mutual building one block north, echoed Volpe’s sentiments.
“Esther’s dedication (to the city) is unparalleled. She is a dynamic, out-of-the-box thinker who, when she sets her mind on something, doesn’t let up until she gets it," Brunson said. "This project is a perfect example of that. Esther has been a hands-on operator and is active in the business everyday. What she proposed seemed like the next logical step. I think the concept works.”
Brunson extended his praise to the theater itself saying that the Madison Theater has been a catalyst for current revitalization efforts and economic development in Covington’s urban core. 
“In my opinion, the Madison Theater has been one of the leaders. Those behind the development happening in Covington look to entities like the Madison Theater and say ‘If they can make it work, so can we.’ These people realize that people come downtown to visit the Madison (Theater). Kudos to Esther for sticking it out and not throwing in the towel.”
While Volpe and Brunson give Johnson the credit for turning a vision into a reality, she says the project would not have happened without their help.
“This wouldn’t have happened without both of them,” said Johnson. “The economy isn’t great and this is not something that was easy to finance. Rebecca was wonderful and not willing to give up and Steve is very much interested in helping downtown succeed. It was a very labor intensive process and I can’t say enough about the work they did. I’m still sitting here in shock.”
As construction continues at the nearby Mutual building and Gateway’s Urban Metro Campus and with work at Hotel Covington hopefully set to begin in the coming weeks, the announcement of the Madison Theater’s expansion couldn’t have come at a better time. Momentum has picked up in the city’s Central Business District over the last 12 months and those involved with this project think Covington is headed in the right direction.
“Covington in my mind is to Northern Kentucky what Cincinnati is to southwest Ohio,” said Brunson. “It is the linchpin and economic engine of an area that has suffered for a number of years. I’ve always enjoyed Covington and the urban element. The area has a lot going for it.”
Johnson agrees. 
“I’m tickled to see all of the people downtown. The city has done a great job, putting in new sidewalks and pavers and improving the streetscape and I think slowly people are going to realize that Covington is a great place to live. I really think it’s on the right path and I want to see it continue. I’m thrilled about what’s going on in Covington.”
Follow The River City News on Facebook, Twitter, or email us!
Written by Jerod Theobald, managing editor
Photo: Madison Live awaits more work next to the Madison Theater/RCN