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Convention Center Expansion, Work During COVID-19 Discussed at Business Lunch

The Covington Business Council (CBC) hosted its monthly luncheon last Thursday and featured a keynote address from Gretchen Lundrum, executive director of the Northern Kentucky Convention Center. Lundrum discussed the convention center's challenges and prevalence over the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the organization's future and plans for expansion that include the 23-acre IRS site in the heart of Covington. 

"Working in the hospitality industry has been particularly challenging over the last few months," Landrum told the CBC members in attendance. "March, 2020 - when we all came to a hard stop. Our last event was March 12th (2020). We closed March 16th. During this time, as you all know, it became apparent we would not be reopening right away." 

Landrum then explained how she prioritized aiding the community while it was reeling with the pandemic by offering the convention center's space to help the homeless population that was relying on organizations like the Emergency Shelter of Northern Kentucky and Welcome House to remain warm and sheltered during the winter when temperatures were to be in the low 20s. 

"They needed a temporary fix so they could make a new plan," she said. Within three hours, representatives from Kenton County and the convention center had the first floor event center set up and ready for Welcome House and the Emergency Shelter of Northern Kentucky to take over. They would be with us for two weeks."

Landrum also cited the convention center's cooperation with Kenton County Clerk Gabe Summe to host the county's primary election, and working with the Kentucky Unemployment offices to offer space so that over 900 unemployed Northern Kentuckians could meet with someone in person to get their claims processed in only three days. 

She then shifted to 2021 and remarked on the hopeful outlook she, her team, and the community felt in contrast to 2020. At this time, the convention center was working with federal, state, and county officials to host a max-vaccination center within the community. From Feb. 12 to April 24, the impromptu clinic vaccinated more than 40,000 people. 

Shifting once again to talk about the future for the convention center, Landrum said that she will lead the convention center by doing the next right thing.  

"As we seem to be emerging from this pandemic, we are ready to look forward," she said. "What about our long-range future, the exciting development of the former IRS site?"

Landrum cited a feasibility study the convention center commissioned before the pandemic, saying that the parts that were complete didn't suggest that the convention center needed to double-in-size, but rather have the capacity to host multiple events at the same time. She said the organization needs to be able to move one event out and another event in without as much downtime. 

"We also discovered that the desire for green space and outdoor access is not just a desire of the Covington community," she stated. "It is reflected in our attendee base. We intend to incorporate that into any design moving forward."

Landrum added that she didn't have any concrete plans or dates yet, but she has been working closely with the city to begin work on developing the site. 

The former-IRS site is particularly convoluted with the departure of Covington's City Manager and Assistant City Manager. In response to Landrum's remarks, the city issued this statement: 

The City of Covington strongly supports the expansion of the Northern Kentucky Convention Center and included it in the conceptual master plan for the adjoining IRS site. We will continue to work with convention center officials to make that expansion a reality.

As for the IRS site itself:

In the next week or so, the City expects to issue a request for proposals for a project management team to oversee the next steps of the site’s development. As soon as that team is in place, we will return to the process of finding companies to remediate environmental issues found on the site, to demolish the building and related infrastructure and salvage the site, and to design the “horizontal infrastructure,” such as streets and sidewalks, water, sanitary and storm sewers, gas and electric, and telecommunications.
 
As you know, the master plan includes the restoration of the street grid, sidewalks, a public plaza, a levee park, and parking areas – plus expanded utilities to support a mix of land uses, including office space, a hotel, apartments and condominiums, and the likely expansion of the convention center. Development of these 23 acres is a once-in-a-lifetime project, the kind of opportunity that cities dream of taking on. We want to do it right. With the change in administrative leadership at the City and the coming hire of a project manager, the City wanted to take another look at the contracts to make sure that they match the city’s goals for the site and that the procurement processes are followed to the letter.

Meanwhile, the City is also continuing to work with Kentucky economic development officials to pursue creation of a Signature Tax Increment Finance Project, or TIF, to help pay for preparing the site for private development.

-Connor Wall, associate editor