Looking to match the success across town, Newport's west side cleans up and seeks investment

Historic homes, businesses also considered a draw
Looking to match the success across town, Newport's west side cleans up and seeks investment
Posted at 7:00 AM, Oct 28, 2017
and last updated 2017-10-28 07:03:10-04

NEWPORT, Ky. -- If you want to invest in Newport's west side, now's the time.

That's the message from the area's residents, city officials and investors who see an up-and-coming urban neighborhood within a mile of the Reds and Bengals stadiums and Downtown. And, at least for now, it's pretty cheap.

Today there are some streets with well-tended homes. There's also scaffolding for painting or tuckpointing and large dumpster bins for construction debris.

Yes, it's still sketchy in places. There are, for now, absentee landlords, homes in disrepair or abandoned and empty commercial buildings.

But there's a changing attitude, said Steve Mathisen, west side resident.

"There's not as much apathy," he said. "People came together to save bus service in the neighborhood. "

Mathisen said would not have happened in the recent past.

Ask anyone if the west side is worth the effort and the answer is an emphatic yes.

Steve Mathisen, a resident of Newport's west side

It might still be a risk to invest, but everyone is counting on continued changes to push forward. And there's the location (walkable and bikable to Downtown) and the trend to move to urban areas.

"As an investor, if you wait until it's built, it's too late," said Ron Pies, a Newport-based investor already doing rehabbing commercial buildings on the west side.

Sweat the small stuff

"We've got to be clean and green first," said Gordon Henry, president of ReNewport, an organization that subsidizes smaller projects, such as bike racks, and hosts events.

In recent weeks, volunteers have fixed a fence, planted trees and cleared out vacant lots. ReNewport also worked with the Keep Cincinnati Beautiful Foundation to paint the boarded-up windows on a couple of homes, the first joint project with that group.

"We go after the low-hanging fruit so people can quickly see how their donations are being used," he said. "It makes us more credible and gives us a track record."

Ed Davis, a resident of Newport's west side

And all that little stuff is working. Mathisen and another west sider, Ed Davis, said residents are more comfortable talking with city officials and calling the police when there's an issue. Neighbors felt ignored over the last couple of decades as the East Row Historic District drew attention and buyers who wanted to fix up homes, they said.

But when the Neighborhoods Foundation started repairing run-down homes and organizations came together to help and neighborhood groups started doing small things, residents began to speak up and see results.

Davis and others took the initiative to make a portion of York and Columbia streets a local historic district. That designation already helped save two houses because they didn't meet demolition codes, he said.

When residents became concerned about drug addicts in Buena Vista Park, they talked to the city. As a result, a camera was installed so police could easily watch the park.

Collaborating with other groups such as the Neighborhoods Foundation, Brighton Center, East Row and West Side Coalition is key to moving the needle, Henry said. Hopes are to bring more activities and events to the neighborhood. They've already hosted yoga in the park and a recent health expo.

People might say it's all small stuff, but there's a direct correlation to how people see their neighborhood, Henry said.

"A win for us is a win for them," he said.

Bringing history into the future

One goal is to preserve the housing stock. It's an effort by residents and the city through the Historic Preservation Commission, ReNewport and the West Side Citizens Coalition.

Newport west siders don't want to turn into another East Row Historic District -- they see something more eclectic, more economically diverse, more artsy.

Efforts are underway to make the west side Buena Vista neighborhood a National Historic District, and there is talk in the long run of becoming a local historic district.

Most housing stock is 100 years old plus, some made of bricks crafted from Licking River clay. Tight urban lots were made for walkability for a mix of people, from steel mill and brewery workers to merchants and professionals lived there.

Volunteers recently surveyed 1,300 homes in the Buena Vista neighborhood, a subset of the west side, documenting everything historical. Their volunteer hours and a $20,000 grant from the Kentucky Heritage Council and National Park Service paid for the research and report, said Scott Clark, Newport historic preservation officer.

The survey will be the basis to apply for a National Historic District designation, said Clark. That designation would allow homeowners and investors to get tax credits when rehabbing a structure.

It's important to reduce the number of absentee landlords and grow home ownership, said Henry. Homeowners tend to be more invested in the neighborhood.

But it's not just homes that integral to the neighborhood. Like many old neighborhoods, buildings that once housed retail merchants and restaurants dot the west side. New Riff Distillery is developing a new campus along the new Route 9, the Wooden Cask Brewery opened on York, and smaller buildings throughout are being rehabbed.

One of those investors, Pies, has made one building into a collaborative studio space for professional photographers. The old Gleason Electric building on York is set to be a kitchen design studio, and he's looking for the right unique tenant for the garage space.

There's better parking at the kitchen studio than any place Downtown, he said.

"It's a nontraditional use of space," he said. He won't let just any business into the space. "We want to make sure it's the right fit."