Don't look now, Newport and Covington, but Ludlow is developing its own sense of ambitious charm

Coffee shop helps anchor, direct city's dreams

LUDLOW, Ky. -- Ludlow represents the last of Northern Kentucky’s six riverfront communities to ride a wave of development that’s brought upscale condos, Red Bike stations and retail outlets to neighboring Covington, Newport and beyond.

As a result, the wealth of untapped real estate -- showcased by October’s “Beyond the Curb” neighborhood tour -- includes everything from Victorian storefronts to newer industrial builds and classically designed residences with surprisingly affordable price tags.

Those elements that traditionally attract new residents -- great schools, restaurants, real estate, public transportation, industry -- are taking shape in this once-sleepy riverside town.

Now, developers and transplants alike are taking another look, and city planners are deciding how to manage the influx while maintaining Ludlow’s quintessentially American charm.

Ludlow City Manager Elishia Chamberlain believes the balance is achievable, thanks in part to a spate of newer small businesses moving into an Elm Street corridor that in recent years has welcomed Leeta Ruth Clothing Boutique, Folk School Coffee Parlor, Second Sight Spirits and popular watering-hole Ludlow Yacht Club.

“The newcomers have fit right in with longtime establishments,” said Chamberlain. “That’s what makes Ludlow unique -- we’re all very proud of the community we have, but we’re excited for change.”

The Folk School Coffee Parlor in Ludlow hosts a weekly podcast featuring Jerry Springer and is owned by Matt "Catfish" Williams, an enthusiastic advocate for the growth of Ludlow.

Delhi native Matt “Catfish” Williams started Folk School on Elm Street in 2013, and his shop has since garnered attention for Ludlow on a national scale; Folk School hosts a weekly podcast featuring Jerry Springer (yes, that Jerry Springer), and celebrity podcaster Marc Maron recently named it among his all-time favorites.

But Williams' investment in the Ludlow community goes deeper. He’s passionate about locally sourced food, among other health and outdoor initiatives, and he was recently elected to Ludlow City Council.

“I never thought I’d be involved in politics,” Williams said. “I used to ride the Anderson Ferry from the west side over to Ludlow as a kid, but once we started doing community events and meeting people in the neighborhood, I realized what a great community Ludlow has.”

Now, the coffee shop has become a Ludlow staple, and Williams and his wife are ambassadors.

“We’re trying to persuade everyone to move to Ludlow,” Williams says. “But no pressure, of course.”

Folk School sells local food from Grateful Grahams, Dean’s Mediterranean Imports, Deeper Roots Coffee and Piebird, and the shop even hosts a “foraging walk” club to acquaint locals with local plant life. His goal: “One day making Ludlow an edible city.”

Two major development projects will soon bookend the flurry of independent business in Ludlow.

The first is the Ludlow Municipal Lot, scheduled to launch next spring, providing a mixed-use public gathering space for festivals and community events in the vacant brownfield next to the city building. The project will celebrate Ludlow’s early-American railroad heritage by featuring a viewing platform adjacent to the Norfolk Southern rail line that runs through town.

Chamberlain worked with local landscape architecture and environmental planning firm Human Nature Inc. to develop the design.

The second major Ludlow project will unfold at the site of the abandoned Ludlow Lagoon Amusement Park, which was a regional recreational center from 1895 until 1920. Organizers are in discussions to transform the vacant space into a mixed-use, multiformat venue that could include soccer and lacrosse fields, natural greenspace with stream-water management and a 24/7 accessible velodrome for cycling-focused regional events.

“Right now, the closest velodromes are in Asheville, Indianapolis and Cleveland,” Chamberlain said. “Not having one of these facilities is the reason Cincinnati has been passed over for major events like the Pan-American Games.

“There’s no other city in Northern Kentucky that could house this type of facility -- Ludlow is the only place that’s for it, and it could be huge.”

Public transportation will be key in tying these developments together for a unified, profitable Ludlow.

“We’d love it if the Cincinnati Streetcar expanded to Northern Kentucky,” Chamberlain said. “But in the meantime, we need to work with the resources we have, and that will involve beefing up TANK’s presence here and hopefully tying in with the Southbank Shuttle (which currently only runs as far west as Covington’s RiverCenter).”

Both Williams and Chamberlain believe the Ludlow Lagoon project, with its focus on outdoor recreation, will solidify Ludlow as a destination for outdoor enthusiasts. But for current Ludlow residents, it will tap into another health and wellness opportunity.

Ludlow served as a pilot community for the regional LiveWell NKY initiative that rolled out last year with goals of residential smoking cessation, increased walkability and other health-driven initiatives.

“LiveWell has helped us focus our energies toward health improvement, but we were already incorporating a lot of those goals in Ludlow, with community gardening and outdoor living,” Chamberlain said.

Williams echoed that sentiment, saying, “It’s not an overnight change. A lot of residents will need to see a pattern for outdoor living and healthier eating habits, and over time I think those older generations will be convinced to come on board.”

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