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Neighbors Take Downtown Block's Future Into Their Own Hands

The landmark Odd Fellows Hall in downtown Covington was once populated by a liquor store, a strip club, a beer & shot joint, and for good measure, another strip club. Around the corner on east Fifth Street were three bars and yet another strip club.

Today there remains just one strip club and just one bar. The Odd Fellows Hall, after a devastating fire nearly erased it from the city more than a dozen years ago, is a fully restored treasure where impressive banquet halls now welcome guests and an architecture firm conducts business on street level. Around the corner, where a dingy bar called Brewskie's once operated, a growing law firm now works. The floors above the legal practice are being renovated to host luxury apartments.

Tony Milburn and partners restored the Odd Fellows Hall and the McMurtry family saved the law firm's building, and now the two will join together to redevelop much of the rest of East Fifth Street.

"The McMurtrys and the Milburns have been friends forever," Milburn said. "I'm interested in helping out that block of Fifth Street, obviously because of the Odd Fellows Hall. (The McMurtrys') building is a no-brainer. That's an absolutely beautiful, stunning building."

The Milburn Group and ECCE Properties acquired three properties from the City of Covington at Tuesday night's city commission meeting. The law firm will expand into 11 East Fifth Street, which most recently had been slated to become an upscale chocolate shop with an apartment above. That deal with the city-owned property fell through in part because of the difficult placement of a utility box outside that prevent scaffolding from going up. The expensive relocation of that box will be addressed as part of the new deal, though details on that were unclear.

11 East Fifth was once Bottoms Up bar, a nighttime spot well known to Covington Police. Across the street at 20 East Fifth, the Covington Police houses its Bike Patrol in a former laundromat. That building was part of Tuesday's deal, too, and could be combined with 18 East Fifth where Floyd's 7/11 bar still operates. Floyd's, which leases the building from the City after selling it to the government more than a year ago (and pays rent by taking care of utilities and maintenance), would close as part of the new arrangement.

The new developers expect that one or two restaurants could be located in the two buildings, possibly with a shared kitchen. "We have talked to a couple of people interested in restaurants," said Milburn, a financial advisor. "Nothing solid, but there seems to be some interest."

There would also be three new apartments in the buildings.

Last fall, the city issued a request for proposals to potential developers and received three bids. The Milburn-ECCE deal was chosen over one offered by local developer Alan Haenhle, and 501 Fairfield, LLC in Bellevue as it was the only one interested in all three properties. The total project is estimated at nearly $700,000.

"Over the years, my family has been doing restoration of properties," said Quinn McMurtry of ECCE Properties. He is the son and brother of local attorneys Stephen and Todd McMurtry, who are partners in the company. "In the early '70s, as a baby, they moved me into the house my dad has now (in Historic Licking Riverside). 7-9 (E. 5th) was our first commercial property. That was a big step up for us. Just having the building right next to us, we have a model that works and it's a beautiful building and we just wanted to make sure that our investment was going to work out and part of that was making sure we had the other building."

The block of East Fifth where the investment will be made is nestled between Madison Avenue and Scott Boulevard. It is a heavily trafficked road through Covington and is surrounded by much of the new development in the city, inclduing the expansion of Gateway Community & Technical College's Urban Metro Campuso which is redeveloping what is called Electric Alley, an activated pedestrian walkway that runs behind the parking garage near the buildings on Fifth.

"It's the corridor to Covington in many ways and if that block doesn't go well, it affects everything," said McMurtry.

"There is a lot going on in the central business district, a lot on the river. To tie all that together is important," Milburn said. "Having Electric Alley with what Gateway is doing and having a pedestrian walk through, you could go all the way to the riverfront. It could be a cool pedestrian pathway. This could be a little piece of that."

As part of the deal, the city parts with the properties at a dollar each. If grants are awarded to the project, thereby reducing developer equity, that equity would be assigned to the city. Should any additional funding be awarded to the project, the developer will contribute a like amount of owner equity to the city. Should unanticipated costs occur, the city may elect to waive its right to that equity.

The developers will have to submit a comprehensive structural assessment as part of a reverter clause and the city maintains the right to hire an independent structural engineer for a second opinion.

According to city zoning administrator Andy Juengling, who presented on the development Tuesday, over a ten year period the development will generate $108,000 in payroll tax, more than $130,000 in property tax, offer the city $30,000 for the liquor license at Floyd's which it owns, increase surrounding property value by more than $7,700, and in four new residential units, will increase residential spending in one year by $65,000.

Subtracting the original cost of the properties, the city's net impact over ten years would be $71,000.

$150,000 in grant funds from the former Times Star Commons project were used by the city in acquiring the buildings.

With Madison Avenue showing stronger signs of revitalization, the new apartments and new restaurants would be welcomed additions to the type of people moving downtown. "You have AmerAsia, and the new sushi place coming in," McMurtry said. "The Millennials, I think they need something like this. Something has to be done to these apartments for that demo."

Story & photo by Michael Monks, editor & publisher