Member Login

Premium Content

Board OKs Covington Church to Become Home of Culinary School, Theatre

After some back and forth between the developer and Covington's board of adjustment, a proposal to transform the historic First Methodist Church into a culinary school and dinner theater was approved for a zoning change.

Hans Phillippo, owner of Holland Roofing Co., has become a prominent developer in Covington, transforming two other buildings recently to open restaurants Lisse and House of Orange. He made a move on the church building when the Gateway Foundation, the fundraising nonprofit arm of Gateway Community & Technical College, sought proposals when the school concluded that it would not be used as part of the downtown Covington campus.

One other proposal received by the foundation would have turned the church into a residential property. That would have changed the aesthetics and historic nature of the building's interior.

"(Phillippo's) proposal keeps the building's historical elements in tact," said Jeanne Schroer, president of the Catalytic Fund and a member of the Gateway Foundation. "Other alternative uses would have required some significant alteration of the space." Schroer also said that Phillippo's plan doesn't require any investment from the City of Covington, whereas a residential project would have had to have been subsidized. "It's very costly to make those kinds of alterations."

Phillippo, of Williamstown, was met with some resistance with part of his plan. Though the general plan of turning the space into a culinary educational facility was well-received, in order for Phillippo to see a return on his investment, he would need to open the space to dining customers and would also include a dinner theater component. That part concerned some members of the board and some neighbors.
Phillippo wanted to be able to operate as a dining destination with performances as many nights as he needed in order to generate enough revenue to make the investment work. 
The board was willing to make a change to the building's zoning, changing it from office use to entertainment, but would only allow the facility to offer its entertainment options four nights a week. They made a unanimous 3 to 0 vote to that effect.
Phillippo said that wouldn't work for him and suggested that he would not move forward.
The board voted again, and changed the condition to five days a week, which Phillippo said would work better.
The operation will be reviewed after six months to see how it is impacting the neighborhood. The Licking Riverside neighborhood association's leadership had expressed support. Neighbor Gayle Capretto, however, who lives right next door to the church, said she was grateful for Schroer's presentation on behalf of Phillippo because it made the project seem less scary than it did a month ago when the project was tabled by the board of adjustment, which wanted more information.
But concerns remain.
"We started with a proposal where there would be one night a week. Now we're at three nights a week, maybe four, and then you were asking could it be an events center? It's possible we could have something going on next door to our home seven nights a week," Capretto said. "That's a concern for people in our building that live right next door."

Parking is also a concern.

In addition to the five-night limit, the board also included conditions that students and patrons be encouraged to park in nearby garages or parking lots rather than taking up the valuable on-street parking in the neighborhood. It also limited entertainment to the sanctuary of the church building and stated that performances should be over by 10 p.m. Williamstown-based Stage Right Musical Theatre Company will be offering regular performances in the space during dinner service.

As for other events, Phillippo has experience in that arena, too, as operator of Main Street Gardens in Williamstown. He also experience in addressing parking concerns.

When Lisse opened in Mainstrasse Village, the most parking-challenged area of the city according to Schroer, he placed valet service on site to serve not only his restaurant, but the entire business district.

"This is a unique situation and I hope you will take the six months. It's a two-way street," said Neil Blunt, a member of the board of adjustment. "This is an opportunity for us to find out if there's other things that (need to be addressed) or to say, hey, this is working great, or there's a few things I need to tweak. It gives us an opportunity to see how your concept is going to work."

Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher

Photos: First Methodist Church (RCN file)