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Panel Discusses Bars and Restaurants 'Fueling Covington's Economy'

The Covington Business Council hosted a panel of three guests to discuss how the city's bars and restaurants are fueling its economy.

Julie Kirkpatrick, president and CEO of meetNKY, emceed the discussion between Bill Whitlow of Rich's Proper Foods; Kimberly Rossetti, leader of Tri-Ed's Economic Development Team; and Josh Neiderhelman, principal of CURŌ - the real-estate investment firm behind Covington Yard.  

Kirkpatrick started the discussion by acknowledging that Covington's eight hotels are beginning to be fully booked - which she attributes to the more than 96 restaurants in the city that she could count, excluding fast-food restaurants. 

"When we think about bars and restaurants, we see that they are huge tourism attractions," Kirkpatrick said. 

Speaking on what projects he invests in, Neiderhelman said that he primarily looks to find businesses and companies that enhance the area and build an experience, which Whitlow revealed is the whole reason he is still in Covington. 

"This area has been crazy for me," Whitlow said. "Honestly, I did not know Covington that well and did not plan on being here that long. Ten years later, you couldn't rip me out of this town." 

Rossetti added that she finds the local restaurants and bars incredible and loves to see Covington's talent grow and foster in the city. 

Neiderhelman went on to say that he believes Covington hasn't reached its full potential, and that it will continue to grow as the community overcomes challenges, particularly COVID. 

"We wanted a place that easy, family friendly, kid friendly, dog friendly," he said, referring to Covington Yard. "What started as a food truck park turned into a shipping container park."

Neiderhelman went on to say that people began congratulating him on having the great idea to open an outdoor bar in a pandemic - not realizing that the project was started many months before. 

Echoing that thought, Whitlow mentioned that adaptability is what led to his success, saying that he came to Covington just to be a part of Wiseguys Lounge in Mainstrasse Village and ended up speaking to more than 100 people from a stage at Thursday's luncheon.

"You learn from failure and I learned a lot," Whitlow said. 

Rossetti continued the thought by saying that businesses looking to move their operations are now predominantly asking what there is to do in the area when selecting a site. Previously, the biggest questions were about utilities, the size of the site, population demographics, while now owners are looking for a more vibrant lifestyle for themselves, their employees, and their customers. 

Neiderhelman explained a community's growth in phases, saying that phase one was started when a new restaurant or bar moves in and becomes successful, phase two was when more restaurants move in and build upon that momentum, and phase three is "okay, now where is the Applebee's?".

He then continued to talk about challenges, saying the building and rehabilitation of facilities has begun to grow to astronomical levels, citing that an industrial building used to cost $7 million, and now costs $15 million. He also said some of the prices were not fixed, the inability to accurately price all aspects of a project requires investors and business owners to have an enormous contingency budget. 

One of the challenges Whitlow mentioned in the discussion was the stress of trying to stay open and operational through the pandemic, and how little support there was to alleviate that stress. 

"I was waking up, going to work, trying to find a way to make it through the pandemic," Whitlow said. "It put stress on the whole family, I don't even know how I would've dealt with it if I had kids."

"A lot of wine," Rossetti retorted. 

-Connor Wall, associate editor