A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Renaissance Covington says ‘yes’ to fun events, creative placemaking and economic development

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By John Fox
Special to NKyTribune from NKY Thrives

Even when things go wrong, Covington has a knack for putting smiles on faces and generating positive publicity.

Photo courtesy of E.H. Freeman

Photo courtesy of E.H. Freeman

The inaugural “Running of the Goats” was planned May 7 to celebrate the season’s first Covington Farmers Market, with the city’s Goebel Goats parading from their pen at Goebel Park in MainStrasse to the market at Third and Court streets in the middle of downtown Covington. Except the goats had other ideas and immediately scattered in multiple directions.

After lots of chasing and laughs, all caught by local television cameras, the goats were rounded up. The Farmers Market went on that day and continues 9 a.m.-1 p.m. every Saturday through October.

Score more wins for Renaissance Covington, the nonprofit group aimed at downtown revitalization that was spun off by city government last year into an independent organization. The staff organized “Running of the Goats,” launched another year of the Farmers Market and, to complete a big weekend, unveiled five parking space “parklets” in its Curb’d program.

Renaissance Covington focuses on creative placemaking, events and design elements to boost economic vitality in a large swath of downtown, linking the development hotbeds of Pike/Madison streets and Roebling Point near the Roebling Suspension Bridge.

Meyer

Meyer

Executive Director Katie Meyer says she’s in the business of using creativity to enhance community.

“The events we support or create in Covington have many purposes — they drive traffic into downtown, they build community and they work to promote and change the reputation of Covington,” Meyer says. “I think of our list of events as a story about who we are. This year the list includes Running of the Goats, Farewell Phoenix, RoeblingFest, World Music Fest, Art Off Pike, an urban fitness series, the Farmers Market, a farm-to-table dinner and Covington Night Bazaar.

“It’s a story about the city’s makers, artists, musicians, local food, small businesses and history.”

And it’s a story that’s gaining national attention. Renaissance Covington was a finalist for the Great American Main Street Award and was honored May 23 as a “City to Watch” at Main Street America’s national conference.

The sheer volume of events and breadth of placemaking activity is impressive, especially when considering Meyer and her part-time staff are also fundraising to support their efforts while simultaneously devising a long-term sustainability model.

This Curb'd installation in front of Inspirado asks people to pedal bikes to power a movie projector.

This Curb’d installation in front of Inspirado asks people to pedal bikes to power a movie projector.

A Covington native, Meyer joined the city administration in 2010 to run its state- and national-accredited Main Street Program, Renaissance Covington. Over the next five years she leveraged local economic and place-based assets to support vibrancy, especially in the downtown area. Several events she helped start, including the Farmers Market and RoeblingFest, continue today.

Last fall the city steered Meyer and the program out of City Hall, literally and figuratively, by agreeing to financially back a five-year transition to life as an independent 510(c)3 nonprofit organization. Renaissance Covington relocated to a small storefront at 2 W. Pike St.

“We continue to work closely with the city and stay aligned in our goals and strategies for downtown,” Meyer says. “We have a five-year funding contract with the city that currently helps to support our operational costs. Our goal over the next four and a half years is to design and execute a financial model for Renaissance Covington that doesn’t rely too heavily on any one funding source.

“I can’t say exactly what that looks like yet, but personally I would like to see enterprise as a central pillar in addition to private support and continued support from foundations.”

Renaissance Covington’s annual budget is around $300,000, with almost 30 percent from the city funding pledge. Meyer says she’d like to see the budget grow to at least $500,000 after five years with no more than 10 percent — and possibly nothing — from Covington government.

The Haile/U.S. Bank Foundation has partnered with Renaissance Covington on several projects to support the city where Ralph V. Haile Jr. was CEO of Peoples Liberty Bank, which was acquired by First National Bank and later U.S. Bank. Vice President Eric Avner says the foundation is also investing in Meyer’s vision.

“Renaissance Covington needs to maintain strong working relationships with the city government, and under Katie’s leadership they have been able to do that,” Avner says. “Part of Katie’s success has been due to her unique understanding of how government functions and of what small businesses need to thrive. I think her success thus far, however, is more attributable to her eternal optimism about the future of Covington.”

Renaissance Covington staff and board members (L-R) Rebekah Gensler, Anissa Lewis, Anne David, Jim Guthrie and Katie Meyer.

Renaissance Covington staff and board members (L-R) Rebekah Gensler, Anissa Lewis, Anne David, Jim Guthrie and Katie Meyer.

Meyer has certainly built her organization for future success, recruiting a strong board of directors that includes representatives from The Catalytic Fund, the Center for Great Neighborhoods, Covington Business Council, Gateway Technical & Community College and Greater Cincinnati Foundation as well as successful Covington small businesses like BLDG, Durham Brands, MKSK Studios and Roebling Point Books & Coffee. Steven Bryant of B-books is president of the board and Jim Guthrie of Hub + Weber Architects is vice president.

Meyer serves on the board of directors of Skyward, whose myNKY plan is a five-year playbook for achieving long-term prosperity across Northern Kentucky. Renaissance Covington’s work addresses one of the plan’s four focus areas, community vibrancy, by utilizing public art and projects as a distinctive feature of the region and by accelerating redevelopment in the urban core.

“As a small nonprofit, Renaissance Covington has the ability to take some risks and try new ideas,” she says. “Our board of directors is entrepreneurial and generally excited by creativity and originality, as is community leadership at large.”

The city parking lot at Seventh and Washington streets was the focus of Renaissance Covington’s creativity and originality back in 2014, when area businesses and volunteers banded together to paint murals, string lights and host pop-up events in what became known as Madlot. Creative placemaking, Meyer says, begins with the theory that a neighborhood or a downtown is only as strong as its weakest link — and she says this parking lot was “in need of intervention.”

Madlot went on to host pop-up outdoor movie screenings, concerts and food festivals along with Art Off Pike and very well might have convinced Braxton Brewing to open next door. With nearby developments like Hotel Covington, the Mutual Building, UpTech, Gateway’s downtown campus and the upcoming Duveneck Square apartments, the lot served to demonstrate how attracting “feet on the street” can spur economic activity … and vice versa.

A rock garden was installed to help make the Pike Street railroad underpass more inviting.

A rock garden was installed to help make the Pike Street railroad underpass more inviting.

A litany of events and placemaking efforts have followed, including a new zen rock garden and lighting at the Pike Street railroad underpass at Russell to bring some life to what’s long been a dark, dingy space. Meyer hopes that future painting and landscaping can turn a barrier into a gateway between Pike/Madison and MainStrasse Village.

The Haile Foundation funded CoSign, which paired downtown Covington business owners with local artists and professional sign fabricators in 2014 to create new storefront business signage. It then brought Curb’d to the city this spring.

Area artists were invited to submit designs and Covington businesses were invited to host parklets in curb-side parking spaces outside their storefronts, and then Haile matched them to determine a list of final concepts. Five were chosen to be installed May through October.

The foundation committed between $5,000 and $10,000 for each parklet in partnership with Renaissance Covington and MainStrasse Village Association, which is outside Renaissance’s assigned sphere of downtown influence.

“We had a great experience with Renaissance Covington and the city of Covington administration when we produced CoSign,” Avner says. “Last fall, when Curb’d was just a vague idea, I made a quick call to Katie to see if she might be interested in continuing our relationship, taking on another major placemaking initiative that didn’t have much precedent. Without hesitation, she said yes.”

“Yes” has helped push downtown Covington into new territory where parking lots turn into public parks, sidewalk parking spaces host interactive games and goats run amok. It’s also where a government program can be spun off as an independent nonprofit and make an even larger impact.

“Spend time with Katie,” Avner says, “and you quickly believe that downtown Covington is poised for greatness.”

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One Comment

  1. Kathy Botuchis says:

    Congratulations Covington! You have a great instigator and leader in Katie Meyer. Best of luck and continued success.

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