40-year growth spurt: Covington business then and now

Oh, the difference 40 years can make. Forty years ago, while cities across the United States were losing residents and businesses to the promise of suburban success, Covington’s urban pioneers were digging in their heels.

Some worked across the river in Cincinnati. Some were local businessmen; others were politicians. Some were Covingtonians by birth, others by choice. Some simply had no place better to be.

They kept their business doors open despite dwindling street traffic. They bought vacant homes and renovated them for their families. They kept the weeds down and the neighborhood safe while others left to chase a different vision.

These were not opportunists, they were neighbors and shop owners and investors. And they all had one thing in common: the belief that Covington was a place worth saving.

Keeping one eye on the future

Like similar riverfront cities, Cincinnati and its neighbor Covington experienced a population boom in the early 20th century. But, between 1950 and 2000, the city of Covington lost more than 20,000 residents — almost a third of its population. And Covington was far from alone. As highways and industry spread out beyond urban centers, most of America’s cities lost residents to the charm of suburban life.

In the name of urban renewal, many municipalities responded to the new expanses of vacancy by simply demolishing historic districts in favor of more car-friendly shopping centers and surface parking lots. By the 1970s, many of America’s small cities were a shadow of their former selves.

Covington, by and large, avoided the fate of many other cities. Its nearly 14 square miles of diverse, light urban landscape is an enclave of late 19th and early 20th century architecture. It boasts an impressive 17 districts on the National Register of Historic Places and more than 25 registered historic sites.

The city’s preservation was thanks in part to a modest economy that couldn’t support vast improvement and building projects in the latter half of the 20th century. And thanks, also, to a community of residents and business owners who refused to be bulldozed.

Rev. William H. Mertes at Mother of God Church was one of Covington’s urban pioneers in the 1960s and 1970s. When faced with a growing number of vacant properties in the area surrounding his parish, he decided to launch a rescue mission of sorts: the Covington Avenue Properties Partnership.

Through this entity, Mertes secured nine properties near and along Covington Avenue, and then enlisted a handful of people to purchase and personally renovate the homes. The initial financial investments were small, but the renovations were extensive. This was not the kind of “property flipping” so common today; it required a deep, long-term commitment to the neighborhood.

The CAPP was one of many resident-led preservation and community development projects at the time. This energy that spread across Covington in the '60s and '70s is what gave the city many of its neighborhood and business associations and established historic districts. In fact, it was grassroots activism that kept portions of what is now the Licking Riverside Historic District from demolition in the 1960s. The Center for Great Neighborhoods, which is still empowering residents to improve their communities, was established around the same time as well.

Preserving a city, street by street

Chuck Scheper bought his home at 427-429 Russell St. in 1976. A part of the CAPP, Scheper’s building was a dilapidated tenement. He estimates that he and his three other partners poured 10,000 hours of labor into the building over five years. He still owns the building today, though he now lives a few blocks away.

Scheper became mayor of Covington in 2011, but not on purpose. A businessman by trade, he had recently retired. But when the sitting mayor stepped down, Scheper was invited to take the post since, back in 1999, he had led a commission to assess the city’s economic efficiency and created a report of 90 recommendations for the city government to consider.

By the time Scheper became mayor, only a handful of the recommendations had been enacted. Now, nearly all have been implemented, thanks to a plan he and his team created in 2012.

“I was 58 or 59 at the time and had retired to focus on trying to make a difference," Scheper says. "But being mayor was certainly not on my bucket list. I ultimately decided this was a unique challenge that I would regret not taking. It was an opportunity to drive for the changes that our team of 20 had recommended 12 years prior. So, I accepted the challenge.”

The city, he says, was inching toward bankruptcy when he took the helm. His State of the City address painted a bleak picture — dwindling population, shrinking tax revenue, ever-increasing government overhead and a projected deficit of $20 million in just five years’ time. But Scheper also had an arsenal of action steps ready and wasted no time in taking them.

Many of the changes Scheper made in 2011 and 2012 have proven instrumental in setting the city on a course for economic success today. The city rebranded and began to more actively market itself to new residents and investors. Scheper negotiated three stalled union contracts to save the city overhead. He implemented incentives and resources to help increase business activity in vacant districts and to welcome new industry. He also conducted independent reviews of all city departments.

Scheper served as mayor for 14 months, then stepped down to refocus on his nonprofit endeavors. Though officially retired — or “re-wired,” as he calls it — he is now chairman of the board for Bexion Pharmaceuticals, a local startup developing innovative cures for cancer. (Scheper himself is a cancer survivor.) He also sits on the board for the Catalytic Fund, Covington Economic Development Authority and the new Horizon Community Funds. He is taking cues from what he says is the city’s history of investment in innovative industries and community development, noting the philanthropic heritage of Ralph Haile, of the Peoples-Liberty Bank (namesake of Cincinnati’s Haile Foundation and People’s Liberty grants).

One of Scheper’s greatest hopes for Covington is that it can continue to encourage homeownership and real estate development while attracting and retaining businesses. He’s especially interested in the startup community, which he says contributes as much as 56 percent of job growth nationwide. If economic growth is simply a matter of connecting employers to a talent base, and if today’s talent base is drawn to urban living, then Covington can provide what both employers and the workforce want. He believes it’s working.

“I love seeing people converting the empty storefronts and the upper floors," he says. "When you drive down Madison Avenue now, you look up and you see lights. You see people living there. You see vibrancy and people walking down the streets. We’ve got great bones in terms of the architecture that doesn’t exist in many cities. I think with being able to polish those jewels up a bit, I’m very optimistic about the future of Covington. I think we’re just at the beginning stages of this renaissance.”

Anchoring the community with family businesses

Currently, Covington attracts both large and small businesses. Among the largest are Fidelity Investments and the Internal Revenue Service, with companies like CTI Clinical Trial & Consulting and Road ID among those recently arriving. These large-scale employers help with tax revenue and employment opportunities, but Covington’s many family-owned shops and restaurants help strengthen the community in different ways. And many have been in the city for decades or longer.

At 613 Madison Ave. stands Motch Jewelers, one of the oldest family jewelry stores in the Midwest. Motch specializes in gemology, jewelry and watch repair, as well as custom fine jewelry. It has been family owned and operated since 1857 and the building alone, designed in 1871 by renowned architect James W. McLauglin, is an architectural treasure.

Across the street is Klingenberg’s Hardware, another of Covington’s longest-operating businesses. The first of what would become six hardware stores bearing the same family name, it opened on Greenup Street in 1922 and relocated to W. Pike in 2000.

Nearby are many other neighborhood establishments like Old Town Café on W. Pike, which opened almost 30 years ago. A mainstay for the daytime business crowd, the café is a no-nonsense family diner serving breakfast and lunch, as well as catering after hours.

A few short blocks away are multiple businesses owned and operated by Jim and Donna Salyers of Salyers Group. Since the 1980s, this Covington power couple has been investing in larger projects such as the Madison Event Center and, most recently, Hotel Covington. They also operate Donna Salyers’ Fabulous Furs and Donna Salyers’ Fabulous Bridal; all of these businesses are within blocks of each other, literally anchoring an entire stretch of the city’s Central Business District.

These family-owned businesses provide a sense of cultural stability through the ebb and flow of the city’s economic shifts.

A city committed to rebuilding the urban grid

Covington's current mayor Joseph Meyer believes these types of owner-operated businesses are key to the city’s strength.

“The owners are active parts of the community,” he says. “They add so much more to the city than just the services that they offer. These are our community leaders. They are the ones who have made their personal commitments and have a stake in our city’s success.”

Meyer understands having a stake in the city’s success. Throughout his 35-year political career, he has been a state representative, state senator and Secretary of Education and Workforce Development Cabinet (among other things). But Meyer is, first, a Covingtonian. Fourth generation, to be exact.

His childhood home is on Covington Avenue, but he was raised mostly in Latonia. In 1975, he and his wife bought a large old apartment building on 11th Street. Affectionately, he remembers it as “one of those old throwaway houses that nobody wanted.” They still live there today.

Meyer credits the revitalization of Covington’s neighborhoods — both 40 years ago and today — to a combination of the persistence of individual residents and the cumulative impact of working together.

He explains, “This all occurred not because some people with deep pockets came and said, ‘We want to do it,’ but it was a very large number of individual decisions to buy a house, to fix it up and to give this whole thing a shot, to live in this environment even before it was as popular like it is today.

“After all,” he adds, “a neighborhood is people. It’s not buildings.”

The other side of the equation, he says, is leveraging government support through smart policies that improve infrastructure. As mayor, he sees this as his job and things like streetscape improvements and restoring the urban grid of the city are top priorities.

Among the indicators of Covington’s recent boom, Meyer lists things like the improvements along the 12th Street/Martin Luther King Blvd. corridor and the NKY Convention Center. Next on the list is to strengthen momentum and allow the current trend toward urbanism migrate further south to Covington's neighborhoods in transition like Wallace Woods and Latonia.

In many ways, Covington today resembles the Covington of 40 years ago. That same pioneering spirit that brought a generation of investors to the city that is present in different neighborhoods now — places like Mainstrasse Village, Westside and Old Seminary Square. Change takes time, though, and time will tell if today’s investments pay off the way yesterday’s have. If so, Covington has a lot to look forward to 40 years from today.

The Northern Kentucky Fund of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation is proud to underwrite Soapbox’s On the Ground: Covington series. The Northern Kentucky Fund believes that highlighting the successes and challenges in our community fosters effective dialog and action, creating communities where everyone can thrive. Other On the Ground partners include The Center for Great Neighborhoods, which is working collaboratively toward community transformation with series sponsor Place Matters partners LISC and United Way of Greater Cincinnati. Data and analysis is provided by The Economics Center. 
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