Here's the stories we'll be watching in the year ahead

How will year three of the pandemic change us?

We’re entering the third year of the Covid-19 pandemic, with no end in sight. The global crisis has altered family life, work life, business, travel, education – pretty much everything. The year ahead will see more adaptations to life in the pandemic era, as we learn to live and thrive in this new environment, rather than wish for a return to pre-pandemic days. How will our overburdened hospitals and health care organizations continue to adapt to this rapidly evolving disease? How will our school leaders and teachers respond, and what will the impact be on children? How will the arts be affected? How will our gathering places be changed? How will we be changed as people? Most importantly, what innovations will these organizations create to ensure their success in an economy that is undergoing a massive transformation?

MORE: 'I’ve learned that it’s OK to slow down, take time, and take a breath.' Lessons from the pandemic

What will the worker shortage mean for the region’s economy?

The pandemic has aggravated an already difficult labor shortage in the region. Unemployment is low, and attitudes toward work are changing, resulting in a threat to continued economic growth. “The overarching issue for the Northern Kentucky economy continues to be a shortage of talent for our businesses, both large and small,” says Brent Cooper, president and CEO of the Northern Kentucky Chamber. Unemployment in the three NKY counties was 3.2% at the end of the year, well below the traditional 4% “full employment” threshold. The rapid growth of Amazon and DHL in the region has consumed much of the available workforce (see our story this week, “Northern Kentucky leads the state in job growth. These industries are why”). How will business and regional leaders respond to attract and retain talent here?

MORE: Northern Kentucky firms add 2,000 jobs in supply chain, logistics, financial services

There's good news and bad news in Northern Kentucky's employment landscape

Will progress in social justice continue?

A 2020 protest in Fort Thomas.It has been nearly two years since George Floyd’s death at police hands in Minneapolis sparked a nationwide outpouring of demands for change. In the immediate aftermath, businesses, law enforcement, schools, government, and other organizations made changes to recognize issues of fairness and equity for Blacks and other minority communities. How have those changes played out in practice? What else should be done? Will there be a backlash similar to what occurred around so-called critical race theory? Will new leaders of minority communities emerge?

MORE: Growing up Black in the inner city taught me that police violence is a problem for all of us

What’s next for riverfront development?

Covington PlazaNorthern Kentucky’s river cities have recognized that the Ohio River can be a magnet for both business and leisure. Riverfront Commons, the planned 11.5 mile walking and biking path conceived from Ludlow to Fort Thomas, made progress in 2021, as Covington completed  the second phase of that city’s portion of the trail. The $6.5 million piece includes Covington Plaza, a 1,350-seat riverfront amphitheater, similar to downtown Cincinnati’s Serpentine Wall. Also in Covington, the former Internal Revenue Service site, a 23-acre parcel that has been called “the most intriguing development opportunity between Baltimore and New Orleans,” should be demolished this year to make way for a new mixed-use development connected to the river. In Newport, the $1 billion Ovation project should see a hotel, office buildings, and parking garage take shape. And upriver in Bellevue, city officials are working with an as-yet-unnamed developer on an early-stage plan to develop six acres of city-owned riverfront property. And river cities on both sides of the Ohio will benefit from the continued development of the Ohio River Recreation Trail.

MORE:  The Ohio River Recreation Trail promotes geotourism and economies in river cities in three states

Covington Plaza is the newest link in the long-term plan to reconnect to the river

Will the affordable housing problem get better?

The lack of affordable housing was already a chronic problem, then one of the region’s largest public housing projects was scheduled to close. The City Heights complex in Covington will begin to transition its residents this year, providing vouchers for the 750 or so people who live there so they can begin to find new homes. But finding a new home will be challenging. The state of Kentucky already has a shortfall of 78,000 housing units for people of very low incomes. And in Kenton County, there’s already a long waiting list for public housing. The local problem is just a symptom of the larger nationwide crisis in affordable housing. It’s a problem that will need to be addressed locally, through investment, innovation, and creative strategies.

MORE: As an era in public housing nears an end, what's next for City Heights?

City Heights residents: Where are we all supposed to live?

Will progress be made on a Brent Spence replacement and other transportation options?

President Biden signed the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill in November and around here, the immediate question was: Does that mean we’ll get a new I-75 bridge? The answer: We’ll see. A replacement for the Brent Spence Bridge has been on the table for two decades, with funding being the main obstacle to getting it done. Now, under the new bill, Kentucky is slated to receive $6.49 billion from the new bill, and Ohio $12.83 billion. There will be competing demands, and the two states will need to work together to make the Brent Spence dream a reality. But outside of that project, there will smaller transportation issues that need to be addressed. Will cities invest in ways to slow traffic in their business districts? Will the region continue on the path to becoming more bike-friendly? Will the infrastructure for electric vehicles continue to develop? Those are the kinds of projects that can have impact without a multi-billion-dollar price tag.  
MORE: Will tiny Lewisburg become 'collateral damage' in the bridge debate?

MORE: 'What we need is reasoned men and women on both sides of the river to say we're going to solve this'

How will we welcome Afghan refugees and other immigrants?

Refugees from Afghanistan and elsewhere will need support.Afghan evacuees have begun joining our community and the year ahead will be important in helping them assimilate. A coalition of regional partners have agreed to provide services as part of an overall welcoming plan for Northern Kentucky. Kentucky Refugee Ministries, a refugee settlement organization based in Louisville, has re-opened its Covington office and Horizon Community Funds has started the NKY Afghan Evacuees Community Fund to help Afghans to get established as they are relocated. Afghan refugees aren’t the only immigrants who will need support and welcoming.  The region has a growing refugee population of the Chin community from Myanmar, as well as Congolese, Somali, Afghans, and Spanish speakers, all communities which have received attention from Refugee Connect. They will need support, ranging from things as basic as acquiring internet service or making a doctor’s appointments, to filling out college applications and finding employment.

MORE: There’s a plan to welcome Afghan refugees to the region

NKY Thrives writer Nancy Daly contributed.

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Read more articles by David Holthaus.

David Holthaus is the managing editor of NKY Thrives, an award-winning journalist, and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading or watching classic movies.