Can Florence's economic development efforts survive the pandemic? Y'all better believe it

It appeared 2020 would be a prosperous time for Florence. Record building starts, a new hotel boom and a thriving economy had Florence on track for another robust year.

Mayor Diane Whalen remembers the exact day that 2020 went off the rails.

“But then it’s leap year and it seems Feb. 29 was a leap not just into March but into the Twilight Zone,” she told Florence Rotary Club in her socially distanced “State of the City” speech in late September.

Rotary meetings, known for hearty buffet lunches and similarly hearty handshakes, take place at the Florence Hilton in normal times. These are not normal times.

Therefore, Florence civic leaders have met on Zoom since March, the month state and local governments ramped up efforts to protect residents from the novel coronavirus.

Although Boone County’s unemployment rate has gyrated since restaurant, movie theater, salon and retail shop closings last spring, the city of Florence, known to many by the "Florence Y'all" water tower along I-75, has kept its focus on long-term and big-ticket economic development. Most promising is Churchill Downs’ $150 million commitment to renovate Turfway Park, announced four months before Covid-19 made way to U.S. shores.

“The Churchill Downs project is totally going to transform the city of Florence,” said Duane Froelicher, Florence City Council member. “Horse racing’s had a long history in Florence and we’re happy to see the reinvestment guarantees being made by Churchill Downs,” the mayor said.

“It’s been a long time coming and we’ve had a lot of starts and false starts over the years,” Whalen said. “But if you drive by the construction site today, you’ll notice that the five-story grandstand building is gone, and it creates for everybody that promise of a great future over there.”

Turfway Park, opened as Latonia Race Course in 1959, gained its current name in 1986. Observers agree it had been showing its age, yet it remained popular among horse lovers. A string of ownership changes preceded the Churchill announcement, which was cause for relief among the statewide horse industry and Northern Kentucky business community.

“They’re working on infrastructure, sewer, water. They’re redoing the parking lots. They’ll redo the entrances and then the building will come up out of the ground,” Whalen said. Florence staff have been in touch with Churchill Downs weekly or biweekly.

“They’re planning to be open by October 2021 for the winter meet next year,” she said.

Churchill Downs announced plans in February to replace Turfway’s existing track with a $5.6 million new synthetic track. Called Tapeta, the new track was expected to be ready by this fall. However, some pandemic-related delays pushed the timing to 2021, according to Tonya Abeln, vice president of communications at Churchill Downs.

As construction continues, Turfway Park racing is closed because of pandemic concerns.

A key moneymaker at the new Turfway Park will be 1,500 historical horse racing terminals. This electronic gambling system allows players to bet on replays of horse races that have already been run. Some terminals resemble slot machines. According to casino.org, thanks in large part to the addition of a Churchill Downs-owned parlor in Louisville, the total handle for historical racing in Kentucky jumped by more than 85 percent in the 2019 fiscal year.

Meanwhile, Churchill Downs is opening Newport Racing and Gaming, an extension of the racing license associated with Turfway. Located at Newport Shopping Center, the $38.4 million project will have 500 slot-like historical racing terminals as well as a pari-mutuel wager simulcast area where guests can watch and wager on live horse racing.

Turfway Park’s redevelopment is anticipated to support up to 400 direct full- and part-time positions and create an estimated 800 construction jobs.

The thoroughbred racing site may be the crown jewel of economic development in Florence. “It will be a sight to behold when it’s done,” Whalen said.

But a drive around Florence shows a mix of construction going on.

“St. Elizabeth (Healthcare) is investing quite a bit of money and putting a new endoscopy building” in front of St. Elizabeth Florence, Whalen said.

Chung Kiwha, a Korean barbecue restaurant at Dream Street and Burlington Pike, was razed, making way for a Tom Gill Chevrolet digital auto sales location.

Texas Roadhouse is going up at the former Houston Road site of Gourmet Buffet, in an out lot in front of Sam’s.

Duluth Trading has opened a freestanding building on Meijer Drive. “How do you do a socially distanced ribbon cutting?” Whalen mused before its Sept. 24 grand opening. The store is known for men’s and women’s workwear and outdoor gear.

A Tesla charging station is going in at the Meijer store parking lot.

Management at Florence Mall forwarded questions regarding future development to its owner, Brookfield Properties, which has yet to respond. The Sears closing two years ago left a large hole in the 100-store regional mall footprint.

The mayor noted that Florence Mall changed ownership, becoming part of Brookfield Properties. It was formerly a General Growth property.

“But the important thing for people to realize is that Sears owns the Sears building, JCPenney owns the JCPenney building, and Macy’s owns the other two boxes on the outside. So, the mall property is strictly the mall outside and then the out lots are being held by Brookfield.

“So, it's not as easy as dealing with one owner to see redevelopment,” Whalen said. “The mall is a valuable piece of property, a very visible piece of property. I have no doubt in my mind that it will be utilized, redeveloped, but it's just a matter of putting all those pieces together and finding out what’s the right answer for that parcel of property,” she said.

Despite challenging times, Florence and Northern Kentucky are “doing pretty well” at economic development, said Lee Crume, CEO of Northern Kentucky Tri-ED. “In light of coronavirus they are doing well and the reason is that the community has all the underlying foundational things that companies need and that’s matched with professional
leadership from the mayor through the city administration,” Crume said.

“It’s a time like no other in my life,” Whalen said. “I continue to be excited about the future knowing that our community can continue to flourish even with everything that’s occurring, the state of our city is strong.”
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