A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

‘Love the Cov’ more than buzzwords – things to do, see make Covington experience authentic

In honor of National Economic Development Week, May 7-12, Covington is calling attention to its aggressive efforts to work with its business community and other partners to generate jobs, attract investment and create a vibrant commercial and tourist economy. Today’s article focuses on efforts to create a “contiguous and authentic” walkable experience for downtown visitors.

The fifth annual 199C this spring celebrated the Reds’ Opening Day with an art exhibit and block party on Pike Street (provided photo).

The disparaging nicknames that used to haunt Covington’s identity have been replaced with a three-word declaration of pride.

“Love the Cov.”

From T-shirts to Christmas ornaments and murals to coffee mugs, the branding phrase adorns everything associated with the City and has morphed into the wildly popular social media hashtag #lovethecov.

“It’s taken on a life of its own – everybody is pushing it,” said Katie Meyer, Executive Director of Renaissance Covington. “Even more importantly, people have really started to believe in that. I no longer feel like I have to be a paid champion.”

To Meyer, whose agency’s mission work is revitalizing Covington’s downtown, the catch-phrase is symbolic of a broader transformation in the narrative of Northern Kentucky’s largest city.

Once considered a place whose best days were in its gritty past, Covington – and its downtown business district, Roebling Point and MainStrasse Village areas in particular – is developing a new reputation for busy sidewalks.

A Christmas ornament sold at Grainwell Market Home & Gift

Weekdays, more workers are seen grabbing coffee in the morning and food or quick retail purchases on their lunch breaks. Weekends and evenings, the City is increasingly seen as a destination, where people linger in restaurants or bars, drinking a craft beer or Kentucky bourbon in one of the City’s nationally recognized bourbon bars. They’re also perusing shops, looking at public art and just wandering around.

It’s the tangible implementation of what urban designers and planners discuss in books, academic treatises and expensive studies.

“What we’re accomplishing in Covington is creating what’s called a contiguous, authentic experience,” Meyer said. “We don’t want an atmosphere where people come down here just to get from point A to point B. We’re creating a place where people can park their cars, get out and have an experience.”

It might be difficult to define, but that success – abstract though it is – is helping to drive a wave of investment in Covington, said Tom West, the City’s Economic Development Director.

“Whether it’s a major new employer like CTI or Road ID, a new residential development like the RiverHaus project, a storefront retail shop or a historic building rehab, the people making the decisions about whether to invest in Covington are asking themselves different versions of the same fundamental question: Is this an attractive, appealing place?” West said.

They’re wondering whether people will leave the suburbs to lease an apartment or buy a condo downtown, whether there’s enough foot traffic to support a shop, or whether Covington’s amenities will help them find and retain employees.

“Increasingly,” West said, “the answer to these questions is ‘Yes!’ and hence this intangible feeling of vibrancy is having very tangible results.”

That “intangible” excitement is most visible simply in the crowds of people walking to restaurants or bars, or sitting at sidewalk tables enjoying themselves.

It can also be seen in numbers and anecdotes like these:

The first meeting to set up the Pike Street Stroll event to showcase businesses on that historic corridor attracted representatives from 17 businesses.

The Covington Farmers Market that opened for the season last Saturday in the Roebling Point area will feature more than two dozen vendors, one from as far away as Casey County. And whereas the market once struggled to attract 100 customers a week, last year it averaged over 500 people. On 2018’s opening day, there were nearly 700 customers.

The inaugural Unlock the Block party at Ritte’s Corner in the Latonia neighborhood last summer attracted over 5,000 people who were undeterred by a pop-up storm with heavy rain.

The international online food and entertainment site Thrillist has written about Covington’s downtown so many times, has used so many increasingly gushy superlatives, and has given the city so many awards that local news outlet The River City News opined that “Thrillist’s crush on Covington is turning into a full-on romance.”

Last year, the National Main Street Center Inc. – whose mission is to “revitalize older and historic commercial districts to build vibrant neighborhoods and thriving economies – recognized Covington’s transformation by giving Renaissance Covington its highest national award. It was one of only three winners nationwide.

Renaissance Covington’s “This Covington Is Our Covington” campaign last November included a new (then-unfinished) mural on West 8th Street by local artist Phil Rowland showing a historic map of the City.

And Renaissance Covington and the City were getting attention even before the award. Meyer and her colleagues were asked to give presentations at the last four national Main Street conferences, with multiple presentations in three of the years.

“People around the country have heard of Covington and are interested in what we’re doing here,” Meyer said. “We’ve developed a reputation for our creativity and how we use a sense of place to engage residents and visitors alike in the public dialogue.”

Renaissance Covington and its partners are well-known for projects like:

Curb’d, the 2016 initiative that built art installations like speed-bag punching and hopscotch gardens in parking spaces.

The “Look Here! Covington” signs, which put historic photographs on poles near their modern-day locations.

2017’s NKY Pride parade and block party to celebrate the LGBTQA community.

Bazaars at Roebling Point in July and December that featured local artists and crafts-makers.

And the Make Covington Pop initiative to promote pop-up retail businesses throughout the City.

These events attracted residents, visitors and shoppers and provided “connections” between retail shops, restaurants, bars and public parks.

Likewise, the months ahead will feature an array of initiatives, programs and events focused on improving the experience of people who come downtown.

In early June, Renaissance Covington will go live with its Public Wi-Fi project, which will not only provide gigabit-speed public Wi-Fi at 35 access points throughout the Renaissance district but will also create a captive portal system that will provide downtown residents, visitors and workers with a wealth of information about topics like dining, shopping, events, public transit, lodging and cultural sites.

“This will really improve the experience of people in our downtown area,” Meyer said.

Renaissance Covington also partnered with City Hall to apply for a $1 million grant awarded by Bloomberg Philanthropies through its 2018 Public Art Challenge. The highly competitive grants are used to fund temporary public art projects that address an important civic issue.

At the April 10 City Commission meeting, Meyer presented a vision for Renaissance Covington’s plan: high-tech creative art installations along the Pike Street Corridor designed to engage the public in discussion of sensitive public policy issues like addiction/recovery and education.

Winning the grant is a longshot – in 2018 only three cities across the United States will be picked to implement their two-year plans. But the grant would be a perfect fit for Covington, given its passionate embrace of public art.

The attention-grabbing Curb’d initiative, for example, created what was called “immersive public experiences” – all in the space of a parking spot – that not only entertained visitors but also got people thinking about the relationship between downtowns, cars and pedestrians.

Such discussions can also be self-fulfilling: In a small way, creating a contiguous assortment of retail shops and tourist experiences that enables and encourages people to leave their cars lessens the demands on infrastructure like parking and streets, West said.

Covington is also known for its murals of all shapes and sizes on the sides of buildings, road underpasses, the Ohio River floodwall and other public infrastructure throughout downtown and some neighborhoods.

The Covington Farmers Market attracts hundreds of people every Saturday to Third and Court streets.

“Public art gives people something to look at but it’s also used to make them stop and think,” Meyer said.

To see many of Covington’s murals, click here.

There are even paintings along the Licking River Greenway & Trail, a walkway – part dirt path and part paved – that runs along the Licking River on Covington’s eastern border.

Covington is also in the beginning construction stages of what it eventually hopes is a $10 million plan to build a walking and biking trail, complete with a public park and activity spaces, along the Ohio River. The Riverfront Commons project – which would stretch across the riverfronts of Northern Kentucky’s river cities – would tie into a similar trail in Cincinnati across the Purple People Bridge in Newport.

Riverfront Commons is important because of its connectivity, Covington City Manager David Johnston said.

Covington’s businesses, especially near the riverfront, count on pedestrians for business. “When the Suspension Bridge was closed for a month or so this spring for repairs, our restaurants and other shops in the Roebling Point area really noticed,” Johnston said. “It speaks to the tangible impact of having an attractive, appealing ‘walkable experience’.”

And in some cases, “walkable” involves bicycles, since Covington has six locations where people can rent bikes to ride by the hour as part of the Red Bike program.

West said the key to Covington’s success has been the “authenticity” of its projects and events.

“From our stunning architecture to our public art projects to the assortment of shops, bars and restaurants, what we offer here is unique to Covington,” he said. “I know it’s clichéd to say this, but you simply can’t get this anywhere else. But that’s what makes it real, and that’s why people are responding like they do.”

Covington’s transformation is striking from both a historic perspective and from a sidewalk view, said Lee Bledsoe of Pivot Realty, who has lived in the City since 1995 and is the local agent for the developer of the massive John R. Green Lofts project in the MainStrasse area.

“Walking across Covington’s downtown, you used to experience little patches of what I called ‘pretties’ and big patches of ‘ugly.’ Now it’s just the opposite,” Bledsoe said. “It’s amazing how fast it’s changing.”

City of Covington

 

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