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Board Chair: Developers Interested in Gateway's Downtown Covington Church

The downsizing of the Gateway Community & Technical College urban metro campus in downtown Covington appears to be in motion.

Ken Paul, the interim chair of the college's board of directors, said at Monday night's special meeting in Ft. Wright that at least three developers are sniffing out opportunities at the First United Methodist Church, the historic building on the southwest corner of Fifth and Greenup Streets. 

The church - which was built in 1867, but suffered severe damage in a fire and was rebuilt in 1947 - is an icon of the city's Licking Riverside Historic District. The original structure was commissioned by Amos Shinle, the 19th century Covington businessman credited with financing other landmark structures like the Roebling Suspension Bridge, the Children's Home of Northern Kentucky, or his namesake home on Garrard Street. In 2012, Gateway rolled out an ambitious plan for a sprawling campus in the urban core that included nine buildings and that designated the church as the Kaleidoscope Urban Outreach & Performing Arts Center.

It was purchased by the Gateway Foundation - the group of boosters that raise money on behalf of the college - for $225,000 in 2012. There was never a concrete plan for its use, though, and in 2014 Gateway asked for public input on what the community would like to see take place at the site.

SEE PREVIOUSLY: Photos: Inside Historic First United Methodist Church

The $80 million campus plan saw only a fraction of its plans come to fruition since. The old Marx Furniture building on Madison Avenue is now the sleek new Technology, Innovation, and Enterprise (TIE) Center, while the former Abode furniture building is home to the college's urban spa and wellness center where massage and cosmetology programs are taught and a student-run salon is operated. The old Citizens Bank building at Pike Street & Madison has been transformed into a Barnes & Noble student bookstore.

But other plans have not materialized. 

The old Senior Services building on Fifth Street was to be a technical classroom center, but that property has been unchanged and still shows signs of damage from a fire it suffered years ago. The Emergency Shelter of Northern Kentucky still operates in a building next to a plot of now-vacant land where Gateway had aspired to construct a brand new $30 million health and science center. The former YMCA on Madison Avenue - vacant since the move of state offices to Latonia - is also now dark and quiet.

Even the college's original space downtown - the Two Rivers building, named for a former middle school that was housed there - may soon be vacant. In 2012, it was stated that the facility needed $10 million in repairs, but has received none. 

Gateway's former president - and the urban campus's biggest cheerleader who won an award in 2015 for its plan - Dr. Ed Hughes resigned in 2015 after several years of fighting with former board chair Jeff Groob. After two interim presidents, Dr. Fernando Figueroa has taken on the job full-time and the college is evaluating its needs in downtown Covington. Ken Paul, who stepped in as interim chair and is expected to become permanent chair following Groob's decision to relinquish the power, reinforced that message on Monday.

Paul said that should he become permanent chair, he would move to separate the finance & facilities committee into two. "We're going to be reasonable about what we need and what we have and how we are going to move forward," said Paul, who could become permanent chair next month. "And we have to do an evaluation but we are out of the real estate business and we aren't buying every vacant building in downtown Covington."

The Gateway Foundation is also out of the real estate business, and will return its main focus to raising funds for student programs and support. Jim Parsons, chair of the Gateway Foundation, did not want to comment about the prospective developers eyeing the Methodist Church on Greenup. Covington City Manager Larry Klein said Tuesday that he was not aware of any specific development interests at the site.

At Tuesday's meeting of the Covington city commission, plans to redevelop an alley that separates the TIE and Two Rivers buildings, that runs perpendicular to Fifth and Sixth Streets, moved forward. All along, "Electric Alley" was part of the Gateway urban campus plan and was looked at as an opportunity to activate an underused outdoor space. The city received a $1 million grant to make it happen and on Tuesday approved the use of $123,000 (80 percent from the grant and 20 percent from city bond funds) to pay Strand Associates for design work. Ultimately, the project will include underground utilities, lighting, and landscaping. City engineer Mike Yeager said that part of the project includes outreach to nearby property owners, too.

Though city commissioners voted unanimously to move forward with the alley project, concern was raised about the possible departure of the college from Two Rivers. Commissioner Steve Frank said that the Kentucky Community & Technical College System (KCTCS) has to approve all of Gateway's plans and that the state board is ready to abandon Two Rivers. That was not independently confirmed by RCN but Commissioners Chuck Eilerman and Bill Wells argued that the property would be more valuable to a new tenant or developer with enhancements to Electric Alley.

Though the urban campus will not look as it was expected to when first presented four years ago, downtown Covington has seen significant developments around the college's planned sites. The YMCA building is directly next to the $21.5 million Hotel Covington, which opened officially on Tuesday. Electric Alley also runs into a block of Fifth Street that has several buildings under renovation and new businesses opening. 

On Tuesday, there was also a sign that Gateway is committed to downtown Covington, even without its original plan coming to fruition. The college inked a 5-year deal with the City of Covington to lease a number of parking spaces in the Midtown parking garage at a rate of $7,500 per month - an increase from the original $3,000 per month. That agreement includes a 3 percent annual increase and possible adjustments if the city's forthcoming downtown parking study should suggest a change.

Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher

Photo: First United Methodist Church (RCN file)