Newport's Baptist Home site is about to change hands, but no one's saying who the buyer is

Neighbors hope for residential development
Newport's Baptist Home site is about to change hands, but no one's saying who the buyer is
Posted at 7:00 AM, Jan 25, 2017
and last updated 2017-01-25 07:00:06-05

NEWPORT, Ky. -- It's been the site of a mansion, an orphanage and a nursing home, but in the next couple of years, this prime piece of Newport hilltop with a downtown Cincinnati view is going to morph into something else.

The question is: what?

The Baptist Convalescent Home and its almost-5 acres of land is already under contract for the next steward of this site. The land and building are assessed at $3.1 million by the Campbell County PVA, but of course, a sale price, which is not public yet, could vary from that.

Robert Long, president and chief executive officer for Baptist Life Communities in Northern Kentucky, wouldn't reveal who is purchasing the site, saying only that the new owner would announce it. They're in the process of doing due diligence on the contract now, he said.

Long said he doesn't expect any problems with the deal.

"We will have the building sold" before Baptist Life is handed the keys to their new space, The Seasons@Alexandria, in November.

What are the buyer's plans for the site?

Again, Long wouldn't elaborate, except to say this purchaser has several ideas for it. They're not in the nursing home business, so that's not part of the plan, he said.

Even the city doesn't know.

Newport City Manager Tom Fromme said Jan. 17 that no one had talked to the city about it. The land does resort back to residential zoning, though, and the city would have input on the density of any housing due to zoning and access to the site.

A long, rich history

Before a conversation happens about what the site could be, it's important to take a look at what it's been and how the neighborhood has changed.

The Baptist Convalescent Home property has been a prime site since almost the beginning of Newport, when George Fearon bought the land in 1838, according to Campbell County Historical and Genealogical Society records. He bought 5 acres from James Taylor, the founder of Newport, who owned the land that was then outside the city limits.

Fearon and his wife, Jennie, built a 20-room house with, yes, a Monmouth Street address. (Today it has a Main Street address.) That meant a very long driveway from Monmouth Street (what is now Highway 27) up a steep hill, likely today's 15th or 16th Street area.

It's not entirely clear what happened, but the Fearons traded their home in 1886 for $1,200 and a land swap for property southeast of the city.

And, in 1886, the Campbell County Protestant Children's Home opened there. (Catholic children had a separate orphanage at the time.)

Beth Fennell's mother lived at the home for about 12 years. Her mom, now 90, didn't talk much about it, said Fennell, now a Newport commissioner.

"(My mom) and her sister were there from about ages 2 and 3 to 14 and 15," she said. "My grandfather, who was from Tennessee, tried to make money working on a riverboat, and on the first trip, he stepped off the boat and locks and drowned."

Like most kids at the orphanage, one or both parents had died or couldn't take care of them. Among the stories her mom has shared was one about the gangsters in Newport.

"She said the gangsters were good to them, the kids at the orphanage, very generous to the kids," Fennell said.

The crowded orphanage moved to a new spot in 1951, and the Baptist Association bought the hilltop site as a home for the elderly, which very quickly turned into convalescent care. It's been a landmark on the hill since 1953.

Many residents in Newport have visited grandparents or other relatives at the home since then.

Today, folks like Glen Elsener, a historical society board member who grew up in the neighborhood, remember it as a play area, especially in the winter when kids took sleds down the nursing home's hill.

Access will be an issue

Whatever is next is certain to be there for years to come. The land is now surrounded by homes mostly built from the 1800s to the 1960s. Roads are tight with a lot of street parking. The main route to shopping at the Newport Pavilion is the one-way 16th Street, which connects with Carothers Road.

For Fromme, that means residential development is the likely solution. In some ways it's not the best news for the city -- the Baptist Home will take its employees and $150,000 annual employment tax with it.

About 50 remaining skilled nursing home beds (the new site has fewer state-licensed beds) will also disappear, said Long. "We have no place for them."

Whether Baptist Life sells licensing rights or takes another route has not been decided, Long said.

But access to the site is going to be an issue for whatever comes next.

The most convenient (and popular) ways up the hill border Monmouth Street; 15th Street and Parkview are one-way streets up the hill. Going down to shopping is 16th Street, which butts into Carothers Road and heads toward the Newport Shopping Center and Newport Pavilion.

There are a few other ways up -- Grandview Avenue from 12th Street across the bridge, access from Route 9 at Aspen Court, and 18th and 19th Streets, which are also off Monmouth.

Hilltop residents are mostly concerned about traffic from high-density properties and traffic on already tight streets. (Residents can't pass a garbage truck going up or down the hill, for example.)

Most, like Fromme, see some kind of residential units, but not high density because of access.

At least one resident wants homes.

Kenneth Bockenstette Jr., who lives near the Baptist Home, said he wants more homes.

"I hope they tear it down and put in housing," he said. "Some of the houses on Biehle are very nice, and that would be a nice extension."

Realtor Matt Franks, who also lives in the neighborhood, doesn't want affordable housing or homes with assisted financing.

"We have enough of that in the neighborhood already," he said. "Newport has its fill of it."

Like other neighbors, he wants to see moderate to upper-income homes that attract younger buyers, like those who work in downtown Cincinnati.

The Baptist Home could theoretically take months to move out, and Long said the transition is being worked on with the state. Moving their folks from one location to another is no easy task, he said.