It is one of the quirks of Northern Kentucky that the only two counties in the state of Kentucky that have not one but two county seats are located not just within the region, but adjacent to each other.
Kenton County and Campbell County hold this distinction. In Campbell County, Alexandria and Newport are the official homes of county government – an arrangement not finalized until a court ruling in 2010 settled Newport’s status as official.
In Kenton County, the county seats are Covington and Independence. Just like their neighbor to the east, Kenton County has one seat located within sight of the Ohio River and the other in an outlying area farther south.
Maintaining its identity as a center for the county is a key attribute for Independence, one that is undergoing replenishment as the Kenton County administration finishes significant restoration work on the Independence Courthouse.
“It’s a county building, but one that I think is iconic of Independence,” says Independence Mayor Chris Reinersman. “It’s uniquely ours, and we have this whole downtown area that is kind of a diamond in the rough, and it is anchored by that courthouse. It could be so much more and everything centers on that courthouse.”
It’s certainly true that it is a familiar landmark to many residents – currently, about two-thirds of Kenton County residents make the choice to visit Independence instead of Covington when it’s time for driver’s license renewals and vehicle inspections, according to Reinersman.
Location of government is a topic that has been under discussion the past few years in Kenton County, resulting in the county’s new $25 million Administration Building in Covington, expected to open sometime around the end of this summer. With its location at the old Bavarian Brewery site adjacent to I-75, access for residents will be simpler than the current location in the heart of Covington on Court Street, where the administration has been housed since 1969.
But county leadership sought public input throughout the process, and remains committed to serving residents as much at their convenience as possible. That was good news not just for how they chose the new Covington site, but also for the future prospects for Independence’s Courthouse.
“Kenton County is a mix of rural, suburban and urban areas and, jointly, our courthouses create an ease of access for all,” says Kenton County Judge/Executive Kris Knochelmann. “Constituent service is the core of Kenton County government, which is why it is significant for the continuation of two county seats. Improvements to the Independence Courthouse are intended to increase the service level for our citizens.”
An early courthouse in Independence was built in 1842, two years after Kenton County was founded. The current courthouse replaced it in 1912, but with more than a century of age on it, needed work if it was going to continue as a working county building. Substantial renovations, including to prominent features such as the cupola on top of the building, the roof and the columns in front, are in the process of being completed.
Just as importantly for Reinersman and the Independence community, it is a symbol of the county’s commitment to the location. And while Independence’s town center remains a quiet, open layout typical of what you might envision in small-town Kentucky, the community around it has changed significantly.
Independence is the third-largest city in Northern Kentucky and one of the fastest-growing communities in the state. From the 2000 census, which had the population at just under 15,000, Independence has grown to about 27,000 residents today. That’s actually a rate the city would like to see slow down.
A lot of that growth came from new homes built on the outer ring of the Greater Cincinnati metro area, with pricing aimed at first-time homeowners who couldn’t find options closer to the heart of Cincinnati.
In 2007, the year before the housing market collapsed, Independence issued building permits for 565 new homes. Two years later, the number was down to 65. Now it has leveled off to about 125 per year the last several years.
“That’s okay,” says Reinersman. “I don’t ever want to go back to building 500 homes in a year again. That’s too hard, too hard to sustain. We've got a lot of starter homes in the city, and that's great. But I think we've filled our quota in that category and we need to start looking at a broader mix of housing, so we can afford to be more choosy. So my charge now is to bring in businesses that can sustain the community.”
The trickiest part to the equation is that all those homes have made Independence a bedroom community, so that the daytime population of those who might shop or eat lunch is not as robust as the population numbers suggest.
A city the size of Independence needs to have the right mix between business and residential so services can be at a level that everyone expects while taxes for residents remain reasonable.
The biggest development on the horizon for Independence is roadway development of State Route 536, which is a proposed $48 million project that area legislators are telling Reinersman rates as a top priority for them in Kentucky’s next biennial budget.
The road runs along the southern border of Independence but, even though well-traveled, doesn’t have much economic development except around the intersection with State Route 17. The plans have it being developed into a four-lane, divided highway with roundabouts at intersections, so that it can become a safer and easier route to reach all those new homes in Independence.
It should also lead to business opportunities. Some of Independence’s biggest current employers are found off of Industrial Road along the city’s north border, just over the boundary line with Florence in an area where business development has thrived. Krauss-Maffei, a German-based injection molding machinery maker, is based there, as is Camco Chemical. Both rank among the top five employers in the city.
Reinersman hopes to see similar employment opportunities crop up in the city’s far southwest corner, once the 536 project gets underway.
The key is striking the right balance, so that Independence can be the kind of community people call home, find all the resources and opportunities they are looking for, and can get both at a reasonable cost of living.
The city’s traditional downtown area is a major part of that puzzle, too. So with the latest commitment from the county to the courthouse, Reinersman is optimistic that downtown can also be developed into a more robust center of services and attractions for anyone who visits.
“In many ways, I think the success of our downtown area can stand or fall on that courthouse,” Reinersman says. “We’ve got a lot of people who work there or who visit there. It’s going to be a big factor in encouraging businesses to take a look at that location.”