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Why Little to No Holiday Decorations in Downtown Covington this Year?

A couple weeks ago, Debbie Bonfilio took her grandkids to see the Christmas display in the windows at Sims Furniture in Covington. The elaborate showcase of the season features half a block of moving, mechanical North Pole characters like elves, reindeer, and even Santa Claus himself preparing for their big day.

The furniture store started the tradition several years ago and it has become the centerpiece of downtown Covington's Christmas spirit.

Sims Furniture holiday display (RCN file)

But in recent years, and particularly this year, it is the only major holiday decorative feature in the city's central business district.

"It's a shame we can't promote the whole area," said Bonfilio, who, along with her husband Frank, have operated Old Town Cafe at Pike Street and Madison Avenue since 1988.

The City of Covington has done little to nothing to incorporate any sense of the holiday spirit in its historic commercial corridor despite recent promises to reverse that trend.

While the city has actively promoted businesses and events through its social media presence and email newsletter, not a single light post along Pike or Madison or Scott Blvd. or Greenup Street has a stitch of Christmas decor.

The Diocese of Covington decorates St. Mary's Park near the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption

Its neighbors along the Ohio River and across the Licking River all use city funds and workers to dress up their business districts during the holiday season.

"I still think Madison Avenue is one of the main drags coming into Covington and this year there is nothing, nothing on the light poles, there are no trees, nothing," Bonfilio said.

She reminisced how years ago, there would be a Christmas tree at Pike and Madison, and there would be events. Now, Old Town and its neighbors don't see much effort at all. "Everybody decorates their windows a little bit, but if this is how you want to display your community with all these new businesses and the hotel (Hotel Covington), it's a shame," Bonfilio said.

The city has more visitors to its central business district than it did a decade ago thanks in large part to the growing number of businesses and residences, but the city's holiday decoration effort has decreased over time, particularly in recent years.

In December of 2018, The River City News published an article noting the lack of downtown holiday decor then.

“Everyone recognizes there’s a void here that shouldn’t exist," then-City Manager David Johnston said at the time. "We’re trying to figure out how to fill it, but that’s not something that’s going to happen this year. In cities I’ve managed elsewhere, the decorations were purchased by the local chambers of commerce, and the city donated crews to put them up every year. We’re hoping to come to a similar sort of arrangement with our business organizations for 2019.”

So when 2019 rolled around, Johnston, citing RCN's article from the year before, sprung into action.

The city put $15,000 in its budget for Christmas decorations, targeting two gateways into the city. The lampposts along Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd./12th Street were crowned with wreaths, lit up at night by solar power. The thirty-two wreaths were a gift to the city. The city also purchased lights to spruce up the entrance to Covington at the Roebling Suspension Bridge.

When the Galt House, a famed hotel in Louisville, offered up some decorations for sale, the city acquired thousands of dollars worth.

"It was massive," said Robert McGrane, an Old Seminary Square resident who helps lead the effort to decorate his neighborhood each year, which annually is lit up beautifully, setting a standard for other neighborhoods.

Photo provided by Robert McGrane

McGrane helped coordinate multiple trips to Louisville to pick up the $14,000 in decorative items purchased by the city from the Galt House. He also worked with Johnston to coordinate the decorating of the city.

"We focused on the yoke off the Suspension Bridge," he said, "we got some electrical lights for the islands (on MLK) which are still up this year, we did trees on MLK going all the way over to Scott."

McGrane, who also organized volunteers to help decorate the city in recent years, said that the new focused effort on bringing holiday cheer to Covington included wrapping light posts along Madison from Third to Eighth streets, and Greenup Street, in a candy-cane style with some garland and bows.

The vacated Internal Revenue Service office site, now owned by the city, was used as a staging and storage area for the decorations.

But this year, there are no wreaths on MLK, no ribbons or bows on the light poles downtown. 

Mainstrasse Village, another commercial district in the city, has some of the Galt House decorations on display, but even there, the resources are not what they were when the now-bankrupt Mainstrasse Village Association lead the effort.

Christmas decorations in Mainstrasse Village

Latonia's Ritte's Corner, yet another business district in Covington, has a large decorated tree donated by a local business and spruced up by civic organizations and community members.

The decline in Covington's holiday spirit has not gone unnoticed.

"We've been deprived for the past two years when people are out driving around," Bonfilio, of Old Town Cafe, said.

The River City News reached out again this year to the City of Covington for answers about why it appears to be going backwards in its previously stated goal of improving its holiday presence. Earlier this month, city spokesperson Dan Hassert, noting that now-City Manager Ken Smith was not available, offered information on "what you’re seeking for your annual assessment of the City’s decorations."

Hassert said that the city performed "various tasks" to assist volunteers in Mainstrasse Village decorate the Sixth Street median, including driving a tree from the IRS site to the village and helping to erect it. The city also used a bucket truck to place a wreath on the Carroll Chimes Bell Tower in Mainstrasse.

The yoke at the Suspension Bridge was decorated again, he said.

He said that the only change from last year "that I'm aware of" is that the wreaths were not returned to MLK. "Wind destroyed a number of those last year, and some of them fell into the roadway, creating traffic hazards," Hassert said.

Lights on the median at MLK/12th in Covington, the extent of the city's decorations in the central business district

"Generally speaking, we leave it up to businesses to decide whether to decorate their storefronts and neighborhood, civic and business associations to decorate their communities and corners," Hassert said in a statement. "The City is too small to have a Holiday Decorating Division, and day in and day out, our Public Works staff is focused on providing core services that taxpayers have come to expect: filling potholes, fixing curbs and streets, keeping leaves out of stormwater basins, treating streets during wintry weather, keeping our parks looking nice, and maintaining our investment in public landscaping and trees."

In a follow-up, RCN asked about whether there was any active communication with civic or business groups about decorating the city. "No conversation," Hassert replied.

Covington Business Council Executive Director Pat Frew confirmed that. "We haven't talked to the City about Christmas decorations," Frew said in a statement. "As we have for several years now we replaced the spring plantings in the 80 planters along Madison Avenue with fall seasonal flowers/plants which will be removed after the first of the year when the plummeting temperatures arrive."

Renaissance Covington, a downtown promotional organization, also did not have conversations with the city about holiday decorations, according to its executive director Nick Wade.

"Much like the CBC, Renaissance Covingtons has not talked to the City about Christmas decorations," Wade said in a statement. "Historically, the organization has never taken the lead on holiday decorations, and instead focuses our holiday initiatives around supporting small businesses and local makers through programming like Small Business Saturday, the Night Bazaar, and new for 2021 the Covington Christkindlmarkt."

So, what about relying on volunteers again?

Hassert said that the city reached out to volunteers again this year but "for the most part, leaders from the 2019 committee opted out."

McGrane, the volunteer coordinator from that year, confirmed that he was ready to pass the holiday torch.

Before he departed City Hall earlier this year, former City Manager David Johnston had also talked about a fundraising effort to help spruce up the PIke/Madison corridor and other areas. 

Hassert said that he is unaware of any fundraising effort set up.

Meanwhile, in other nearby urban cities like Newport, Bellevue, Ludlow, and Dayton, the business districts are decorated.

Dayton City Administrator Jay Fossett noted the illuminated snowflakes along Sixth Avenue and the elaborate lights decking out Monument Park. The city pays for all of it.
Christmas decorations in Dayton
 
Newport City Manager Tom Fromme said that the city hosts its annual tree-lighting event at the city building. The trees is either purchased by the city or donated each year, he said. The city also puts up artificial garland around of some of the light poles. "Nothing too extravagant," he said.
 
Bellevue City Administrator Frank Warnock said that the city's holiday decorations efforts are jointly addressed by the city government and the Bellevue Neighborhood Association. The city pays for the power to illuminate the decorative lights placed on each lamppost in the business district, while volunteers mostly install them.
Decorations in Bellevue
 
Suburban cities in the region are also focused on holiday decorations in ways that seemingly dwarf the efforts of Covington, the region's largest city.
 
Florence Chief Financial Officer Linda Chapman explained that the city spent $16,500 on decorations this year, a little more in years past since Florence hosted a drive-through city celebration for Christmas which required more lights on the government campus.
 
In Erlanger, the city includes all decorations for special events in one budget line item each year. The city's director of economic development, Emi Randall, said that the city sets aside $25,500 for all of that - with $5,000 for Christmas decorations and to spruce up light poles.
 
In Taylor Mill, around $4,800 is spent with the big event being a tree-lighting. City Administrator Brian Haney said that around $2,000 is spent on the holiday train and gifts. The wreaths on the city building were donated.
 
But in those other cities, there are not as many business districts or gateways as Covington has. RCN asked whether that posed an issue for the City of Covington, to which spokesperson Dan Hassert replied simply, "Somewhat..."

There are holiday decorations owned by the city that are currently unused, Hassert confirmed. They are stored on the old IRS site. "(B)ut those are almost exclusively interior decorations that (former City Manager) David (Johnston) got used from the Galt House in Louisville a year or two back," Hassert said in a statement. "That’s part (or all) of what the $15,000 budget line item that year was spent on.

"The few exterior decorations that were in the trailers were used by volunteers over near MainStrasse this year."

McGrane, the volunteer coordinator who led the effort to retrieve those decorations from the Galt House, said that only around 20 to 30 percent of the hotel's haul were indoor-oriented, and that the rest were for exterior use.

McGrane's neighborhood, Old Seminary Square, could be a good guide for the city government if it ever wants to return holiday warmth to its central business district. He says that his group starts planning in February or March. There are volunteers from the neighborhood and local schools.

Photos provided by Robert McGrane

The decorations along his street - and across the city - are to bring cheer.

"It's just the kind of thing where all the leaves are off, it's kind of cold, the days are gray and shorter," he said. "It is bringing a little bit of light and festivity in a time of the year that is a little bit colder and people are in their cars, and being able to see some lights and decorations can hopefully touch people's spirit and hopefully pass it on or pass it forward."

Written by Michael A. Monks, editor & publisher. Patricia A. Scheyer and Connor Wall contributed.

Photos by Michael Monks except where noted.