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Landlocked Florence looks to grow through commercial, retail development

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Posted at 12:00 PM, Sep 24, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-24 12:00:50-04

FLORENCE, Ky. -- For the last 30-some years, it seemed as if Florence’s population gain was going to beat out Covington, which was losing population by the thousands.

In fact, Florence has nearly doubled in size since 1980 to 32,227, while Covington lost about 10,000 residents -- about a fifth of its population -- at the same time, continuing on its downward spiral since the 1950s when moving to the suburbs became the American way.

Now, however, Florence is reaching its limits on single-family housing growth, according to city officials.

They’ve known they’ve been landlocked since about 2000, said Mayor Diane Whalen, and they’ve been planning for it by looking at a different kind of growth through commercial and retail development. In this retail mecca of Northern Kentucky, that means more workers, shoppers and tourists visiting and spending money.

Boone County, which continues to grow, will continue to feed the city workers, who pay income tax to the city.

To keep retail a viable part of the city means constant evaluation and re-evaluation on that front, said Josh Hunt, director of business and community development for the City of Florence.

In October, Gabe’s, a high-end retail clothing outlet, will open off Houston Road in the second half of the former Bigg’s Supermarket, said Hunt. And in the last year, Burlington Coat Factory (in the old Kroger site), Costco and Dave and Buster’s all opened off Mall Road.

There’s more coming, said Hunt, who wouldn’t go into details.

“You’re really going to see redevelopment over the next three years. We’ve got a lot of things going on, and they’re big,” he said.

Brian Miller, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Northern Kentucky, said Florence continues to look at “how to diversify what they have” and “how to keep people on Mall Road after 10 p.m. and before 10 a.m.”

Miller would like to see the city consider a convention site, something Hunt said is not a priority at the moment.

New investment in Florence continues to be substantial: $33 million in 2013, $62 million in 2014 and $15 million in 2015, said Miller, adding that Costco was somewhere in those numbers.

That retail and commercial growth may look like it’s happening all along Mall Road and Houston Road, but Whalen said the growth is spread out.

“We also do a lot of redevelopment (retrofitting older buildings),” she said.

Retrofitting buildings is also good for the city, going from $11 million in 2013 to $53 million in 2015, Miller said.

“They’ve done an excellent job,” he said.

Florence annexed commercial land located near the airport on the west side of the city so Bosch can expand. Vickie Ashwill | WCPO contributor

It also means commercial job growth, said Whalen, who noted the city just annexed property toward the airport so that Bosch Automotive Steering can expand its facilities.

“Florence is financially healthy,” said Miller.

Boone County as a whole is averaging about $86 million in commercial reinvestment.

“(Florence) is where most of the action is,” Miller said.

However, annexing land for homes is limited. Florence borders Kenton County on the west and won’t annex there, Miller said, and while there may be a few pieces of land on the west for smaller developments, it’s “nothing like in the past.”

Whalen said Florence won’t exactly “cease to grow,” but there will be “more density” in multiple-family developments such as apartments, townhomes, condos and senior living projects. Plantation Point, an apartment, condominium and single-family development, is one example.

Upticks in population are still going to happen, but at a slower rate (the population grew 7.6 percent from 2010 to 2015, climbing up to 32,227, according to the U.S. Census Bureau).

“If you look at other cities, they are looking at what they have,” said Whalen, adding that Florence is no different. “If the job base grows, the retail base grows and the business base continues to grow.”