Editor's note about Changemakers: This is part of a continuing series of stories and columns about people and places fostering change in our communities.
COVINGTON – Just beyond the buzz of Interstate 75 traffic jams and thundering semi trucks roosts an easy-to-miss corner of Covington.
Unlike this city's northern edge, homes here don't boast scenic river views or sprawling city skyline scenes. Chipping paint, boarded up doors or an empty building shell are the more likely encounter for a passerby.
But brick by brick and beam by beam, the aging relics spread across Covington's Westside neighborhood are getting a new shot at life.
Leading the transformation is the Center for Great Neighborhoods of Covington, a nonprofit developer that’s tackling a host of projects crafted to revamp the newly expanded Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
By June, the nonprofit developer expects to wrap up a more than $2-million-remake of the former Hellman Lumber Mill along Martin Luther King Jr. In it’s prime, the mill's workers were masters in hand-crafted woodworking designs that still adorn Covington’s oldest homes and institutions across the region.
The historic 19th century building is being renovated into a nearly 14,000-square-foot community event center with room for leasable artist studios and renovated offices for the Center for Great Neighborhoods.
The property “represents what Covington’s Westside is all about,” said Rachel Hastings, director of community development at the center. “It was built for the workers. For people who worked in the rope factory, the Bavarian Brewery and the mill.”
As the nonprofit spreads its investment footprint, Hastings says the Hellman building will serve as a reminder of the kind of neighborhood revival leaders hope to achieve here.
“It’s not just about bringing in a bunch of hipsters,” Hastings said. “We think we can bring in new folks, but also help folks who’ve lived through the harder times here be part of a new day for their neighborhood. This building, we think, can be the hub for reactivating this entire corridor.”
Building Equity, One Property at a Time
Beyond the Hellman mill, the nonprofit’s investments are spreading fast.
For long-time and new residents, the nonprofit is investing $1.45 million over the next three years into a neighborhood-wide facelift. Through a program dubbed “Creative Facades,” homeowners and businesses can apply for grants to help dress up and fix their properties' exteriors.
“So often when organizations are investing in neighborhoods, there’s a bunch of new construction or renovation that happens, but there’s no real opportunity for residents who already live there to invest and build equity,” Hastings said. “We want to make sure that residents have a way to participate and benefit from an improving neighborhood.”
Meanwhile, across the Westside the agency has invested nearly $8 million to buy up empty and decaying properties -- big and small.
In partnership with a city of Covington program that targets tax delinquent properties in need of repairs, the nonprofit buys foreclosed properties with a commitment to rehab it or find an investor “with the capacity to take on the work,” Hastings said.
Just across from the Hellman mill, the center now owns a row of vacant buildings that a yoga studio and a bakery are eyeing.
“We’re not putting up big ‘For Rent’ signs yet,” Hastings said. “So, it’s great to know that much of the interest is happening by word of mouth.”
Other properties are being snatched up by homebuyers like Fritz Kuhlman. An architect and real estate agent, Kuhlman expects to close in the New Year on a home on Fisk Avenue owned by the center and just a block from the Hellman building.
"There are so many great things going on in this neighborhood,” Kuhlman said. “The expansion of MLK has really turned out to be this unifying investment that’s attracting new businesses and looks lovely for the properties along it.”
Moving Beyond ‘State of Paralysis’
For decades, Hastings says, property owners along Martin Luther King Jr. “were in a state of paralysis” as Kentucky’s legislature debated whether to expand it – a move that would eventually require significant property acquisitions by the state.
“For 25 years they fought about this,” Hastings said. “As a result almost no one invested in any of the buildings because it was completely unknown if they were eventually going to be bought and torn down.”
When the road was finally expanded in 2009, the historic Hellman Lumber mill was among the properties saved from the wrecking ball.
“We had our eye on this building for quite awhile,” said Hastings, whose agency bought the property for $500,000 from the state.
While artists' spaces will be available for lease, the space will serve as incubator for creative ideas and new business launches as well, Hastings said. The nonprofit is exploring forgiveable loan programs for artists and crafters who agree to also use some of their time teaching others their talents or lending their skills to the neighborhood’s overhaul.
“We think it’s very exciting that the new incarnation of the building will carry on the same creative spirit that embodied the wood-working business here and Covington’s Westside,” she said.