COVINGTON, Ky. -- A few years ago, tying the knot was downtown Covington’s meager stock-in-trade, with a handful of dress shops, jewelers and wedding venues dotting the main business corridor -- and business wasn’t great.
“This area never worked as a bridal district,” said Shirley Alley, who manages Motch Jewelers on Madison Avenue and has worked in downtown Covington for seven years. “Everything used to shut down at 5 p.m. because there was no one down here,” she said, adding that up until last year, she didn’t feel safe walking after work to get her hair cut at the salon just around the corner.
The area showed signs of life in 2012, when Gateway Community & Technical College purchased several properties for its planned urban campus, but Alley said even those promising additions failed to bring the permanent change Covington desperately needed.
“It was nice to see the (Gateway) book store open across the street, but this area still wasn’t a place where people wanted to walk around after dark and shop or hang out,” said Alley.
While Covington is still tackling common urban challenges of homelessness, scarce parking and blight, a stroll through downtown these days tells a much more hopeful story. Many original wedding tenants remain, but they’re now joined by a bevy of restaurants, bars, tech startups, yoga studios and businesses with a strong entrepreneurial bent, such as creative firm Durham Brand & Co. on Madison and Braxton Brewing Company on nearby West 7th Street.
Not the least of new developments is the highly anticipated Hotel Covington, which opened in late September in the historic Coppin Building at Sixth Street and Madison Avenue.
Across the street from the hotel, in another iconic building owned by the same investment group, The Hannaford bar is preparing to open doors later this month, bringing yet another wedding-peripheral option that part-owner Aaron Kohlhepp hopes will appeal to all demographics -- not just the young professionals and wedding crowds.
“We really want to be the bar for everyone,” said Kohlhepp, who described breathing a sigh of relief when the longtime owner of nearby Old Town Tavern stopped by to welcome Kohlhepp to the neighborhood. “We have gotten such a warm welcome, even from direct competitors.”
Kohlhepp thinks longtime Covington business owners and newbies alike share a goal of getting more people moving around and enjoying all the city has to offer.
Braxton co-owner Jake Rouse echoed that sentiment.
“People ask if I’m bummed that a new bar is moving in down the block and I tell them absolutely not," he said. "People used to come to Covington for a few drinks and then leave. Now they’re coming here and then heading to other restaurants and shops in the area. This is all about getting people out and making connections.”
Rouse, whose idea for the brewery-meets-business-incubator took shape in 2014, said his business plans always involved a Covington location.
“When we started coming down here, we met several people from (neighboring business incubator) UpTech, Salyers Group and other people and immediately fell in love with the neighborhood," he said. "It was clear that Covington was the right place with the right people to get something started.”
Braxton is one of several community-oriented businesses and tech startups residing in Covington’s newly identified Innovation Alley, a one-block area bordered by historic Mother of God Church and Pike and 7th streets.
Rouse said that although Braxton also enjoyed a warm welcome to the community from most, there were some older Covington businesses who were less enthusiastic about all the recent change.
“I think for some people, change is scary,” said Rouse. “Those older businesses sometimes cling to what Covington used to be and they feel a little left out.”
Through Braxton, Rouse has tried to assuage those fears by hosting outdoor festivals, inviting local restaurants to serve food at the brewery and generally being an advocate for other business owners.
But for those who remain hesitant, Rouse’s advice is simple. “Dive in. You’re going to get out of Covington what you put in," he said. "Many of the great changes we’re seeing now were started by small groups of two or three people. You don’t need a lot of resources or connections, you only need to be willing to get involved, and if you are willing, you will see a tangible difference.”
Braxton, The Hannaford, Motch Jewelers and dozens more Covington businesses will participate in a series of “shop small” events in the weeks leading up to the holiday season. Visit Renaissance Covington’s Facebook page for more details.