Leaders in historic Latonia working to grow one of Covington's most promising business districts

COVINGTON, Ky. -- Latonia is one of Covington's 19 distinctive neighborhoods, but at one time it was a city all its own. That might explain the fierce sense of pride that still resonates with local residents.

The historic railroad community was home to Latonia Race Track, one of the region's most popular horse racing venues from 1883 to 1939.

Recent years have brought slow but steady changes to Latonia's business district, which features large shopping centers along Winston Avenue and storefronts at the historic five-way intersection of Ritte's Corner. Many of those storefronts stand empty, and Covington leaders have begun to tackle them by introducing rent-subsidy and façade-improvement programs.

"There's been ongoing talk of improvements to Ritte's Corner," said Latonia Business Association president Pat O'Donnell, who feels some incentives are better suited to newcomers. "Rent subsidies are great for job creation, but a lot of those services don't apply to the people who are already here."

At Ritte's Corner, new businesses like Bard's Burgers and Center Shot Archery join a longstanding chiropractor's office, computer repair shop (in the former home of Johnny's Toys) and Heritage Bank, whose founder, Arnold Caddell, is a Latonia native.

O'Donnell -- himself a graduate of Holy Cross High School and Heritage Bank senior vice president -- said he believes there's a strong hometown thread connecting Latonia residents and business owners alike. In fact, he said, Covington's new mayor, Joe Meyer, also grew up there.

"There really is a sense of pride," said O'Donnell. "Many of us were born and raised here, and the people who have stayed want to keep making it better. We're passionate about making Latonia more of a focal point, and more resources from Covington will help us do that."

Julie Plageman chairs the Latonia Community Council and has been working with city officials on improvement plans that include burying utility lines and installing decorative lighting at Ritte's Corner. She said residents are excited about the recent changes, but their wish list still includes recreation centers, a community pool, local library branch, bakery and improvements to the railroad museum.

"And of course our biggest wish is to … work with a developer to redo the Latonia Shopping Center," Plageman said.

The council recently partnered with a local filmmaker to produce "Old Latonia," which was cycled through three showings at local nursing home Rosedale Green.

"The older generation had so many stories to tell and some even welled up with tears as they spoke of their beloved Latonia," said Plageman.

Covington officials say Latonia has long been an area of interest for development. Throughout 2010, the neighborhood was the focus of a Small Area Study conducted by Planning and Development Services of Kenton County. The study became a formal part of the county's comprehensive plan in 2011 and since then, community leaders have worked with organizers from PDS, Covington's Center for Great Neighborhoods and other organizations to bring components of the plan to life.

Pursuant to the plan, the city is currently in the process of conducting a traffic study along Latonia's state-owned main thoroughfare, State Route 16. The two groups have gone back and forth with revisions, and the city will soon present a final version to the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet.

"Right now, it's five lanes and it's pretty cumbersome to cross, so we're looking for ways to cut that footprint down and increase pedestrian and bike activity," said Covington development director Mike Yeager.

Covington officials have also partnered with data analytics firm Buxton to learn how residents and visitors are spending their retail dollars -- and subsequently, which retailers might best anchor Latonia's two largest shopping plazas, which are currently home to Kroger, Burlington Coat FactoryDollar General and a spate of smaller retail and food offerings.

"There are a lot of irons in the fire, but we are looking for more information to move forward," said O'Donnell.

Covington development manager Donald Warner was able to provide an update on how things are going.

"Following the implementation and presentation of (façade and small business) programs, there has been interest from business and property owners within the neighborhood," he said. "I would expect to see the deployment of program funds in the coming months."

A slightly less visible contributor to the neighborhood's ongoing progress is Fidelity Investments, which has maintained a site on the border of Latonia and Taylor Mill since 1995. Since establishing its Covington campus, Fidelity's presence in the region has grown and contributed to economic development throughout surrounding communities.

"On any given day, you'll see Fidelity employees venturing to neighboring cities like Fort Wright or Latonia to hit popular venues during their lunch breaks," said Fidelity spokesperson Kevin Canafax. "As Northern Kentucky's largest private employer, Fidelity remains committed to the Northern Kentucky and Greater Cincinnati region."

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