Listen: Why It's a Great Time to Be in Covington
"It was the right time and the right place. The foundation had been laid and I got to walk in the door when it was a time to implement and execute and that's what we've been doing. We're going forward with all cylinders."
A little more than a year ago, the City of Covington turned to Colerain Township in Ohio when it was looking for a new economic development manager. That's where the city found Geoff Milz, who served Colerain as its director of planning, building, and zoning. His credentials included professional work in central New York and a master's degree in community planning from the University of Cincinnati.
"I love cities, plain and simple, and I love being in the eye of the storm and this place is positioned to absolutely blow up in the next five years," Milz told The River City News shortly before the commission voted on his hiring in 2015. "There is scaffolding on every street, dumpsters in front of buildings, Gateway (Community & Technical College), and it's just incredible what is about to happen here."
His enthusiasm for the city has not wavered, and neither has his optimism. He cites City Hall's recent decision to reorganize the development department, giving Milz more responsibility, as evidence of progress. "We're staffing up to be able to handle the workload that exists today," he told The River City News in a podcast that was recorded last week and can be heard in full below. "Basically, our staff as it existed before this reorganization was a staff that was tuned into the Great Recession. We didn't have huge infrastructure projects, we didn't have major economic development projects, but now we do and the workload is intense.
"With the additional staff that the reorganization adds, we'll be able to accommodate the deal-flow that is burgeoning right now. We've got a lot going on."
Downtown Covington is full of visual support for MIlz's claims: The Hotel Covington, a $21.5 million reimagining of the old Coppin's Department Store building (and former Covington City Hall) into a boutique hotel, is just a couple months away from welcoming its first guests. Braxton Brewing Company, in just over a year, has become a landmark regional destination. There are new residential units, a hot real estate market, and new restaurants and bars opening.
Since Milz's arrival, the city has taken a stronger focus on publicly celebrating those wins. "We have had a ribbon-cutting at a new business every Friday since September," Milz said. "That's incredible."
Now, equipped with momentum and a positive narrative, Covington is aiming to spread its development success to two other critical areas: the riverfront and Latonia. To assist with its efforts to attract new retail and restaurant tenants for empty storefronts, particularly in Latonia, the city has a $50,000 contract with Buxton, a company that specializes in matching businesses with geographic opportunities based on anonymous data collected from Visa purchases.
"It is much more geared for the Latonia market in filling up those horribly vacant storefronts in the Latonia Shopping Center," Milz said. As for what may be viable there, he isn't sure. That's for Buxton to say. "If we do nothing, then nothing happens. We have to be proactive."
Some of the suggestions revealed in the "Latonia Life" presentation created by RCN publisher Michael Monks as part of a master's degree program that aims to create a digital marketing strategy for the central city neighborhood are also being implemented: the city will expand its geographic boundaries for upper floor residential rehab grants and storefront rent incentives, for example.
Latonia also has the benefit to be its own best sales rep. "The houses are incredible, the density is wonderful, it's affordable," MIlz said. "It's got great schools. It's everything you want it to be, so what more could you ask for than Latonia?"
The philosophy that led to the creation of the Center City Action Plan - a 2012 roadmap for the revitalization of downtown Covington that showcased the city's need for hyperfocus on smaller areas - will also be applied to Latonia. "City Hall isn't the answer to everything but there are things we can do to help and we've demonstrated that City Hall can have a catalytic effect, and that has been our strategy with the Center City Action Plan, to focus resources on a designated area. It can work for Ritte's Corner," he said.
Meanwhile, back in the northern end of the city, the long-awaited redevelopment of Covington's riverfront should begin this year, Milz said. Designs were released to enthusiastic reviews earlier this year. The first phase, which is described as the "western walk" is part of the Riverfront Commons project, a multi-purpose trail system that will connect the Northern Kentucky River Cities from Ludlow to Ft. Thomas. It is fully funded and designed, but the city is waiting on an agreement with CSX, the railroad company, to allow use under its bridge.
The second phase is the development of the riverfront plaza which is awaiting approval from the Army Corps of Engineers. "As soon as they sign off, we'll be able to get into construction documents," Milz said. "The really exciting part of this is adding the bells and whistles that will allow the park to take on the personality of the city, which is going to be funky, and cool, and authentic, and raw." Those amenities may include items like a light installation or a waterfall fountain. "These little ideas are to make it unique and interesting to the region."