It took 150 years for 'the Cov' to get this cool

Posted at 5:00 AM, Apr 07, 2016
and last updated 2016-04-07 05:05:47-04

This is the third part in a series that spotlights re-urbanization efforts in the Greater Cincinnati area. Read Part 1 here. Read Part 2 here.

COVINGTON, Ky. -- It’s difficult to classify Covington’s resurgence as “re-urbanization,” since structures like The Ascent and the Pulse Loft Apartments were built within the past 10 years. Given the strictest definition of re-urbanization, that’s not what’s happening in Kentucky’s fifth-largest city.

Yet there is a distinctly different vibe in the “Cov,” as it is called with varying degrees of affection, these days. People come and people go, ditto businesses.

Feelings, however, do change, and there’s a new feeling of vibrancy these days in Covington.

Braxton Brewing opened just over a year ago on West Seventh Street, and the owners made no bones about the fact that they chose Covington due to the “renaissance” happening in the city — and renaissance is a great word for what the city is experiencing.

The packed taproom is just one example of that rebirth. Just down the street, the former city building is undergoing a transformation into the Hotel Covington, a 114-room luxury hotel set to open on Madison Avenue this summer.

Another development about to get underway this year, at Duveneck Square, is to be filled with retail, office and living space. And all of that is happening on top of a restaurant boom in MainStrasse, the city’s historic entertainment district.

“We have an incredible amount of social capital in this city,” said Geoff Milz, economic development manager for the city of Covington. “That’s not something you can create. (Covington) was built for more people than we have — there’s room for everyone here.

“You can’t create this anymore. It took 150 years for the city to get this cool. It’s very authentic.”

“It’s been a pendulum, and I think the pendulum is swinging back,” Milz said. “I can’t think of another city where you can buy a house for $100,000 and walk to a Major League Baseball game. We are incredibly culturally rich — very well-endowed artistically for a city our size. That’s something missing outside of downtown.”

Milz has a contagious, edge-of-his-seat excitement when he talks about the goings-on in Covington. That excitement is shared by Covington residents, as well.

“This area is definitely on an upswing,” said C.J. Novack, who with his wife, Cindy, moved to Covington’s Main Strasse neighborhood two years ago. The Novacks bought a retired fire station on Main, and they've become so ingrained in their new community they literally opened their doors this past December to allow the Covington Fire Department to visit, see how the old station had changed, and reminisce. It was so popular with neighbors and the department, the Novacks are considering making that an annual party.

“The changes have been drastic in the two years since we moved in,” C.J. said. “The other thing that’s cool about being down here is this place is a microcosm of tolerance. It’s very diverse.”

Reality has been at odds with the preconceptions the Novacks had of Covington, as many do, that it was an area with a disproportionate number of the problems faced by every city and town.

“I had a perception of Covington as being slightly dangerous,” said Cindy, who grew up in Delhi Township. “I saw a homeless guy shuffling up the street the first time we came here. Now, I know that’s Billy, and he’s harmless. You get to know everyone. In the suburbs, everyone stays inside.”

A chat with the Novacks on a beautiful spring day bore that out, as friends and neighbors walked by waving, or stopping to say hello, in front of the Bean Haus.

That’s not to say the Novacks didn’t face adjustments, though.

“You have to do litter patrol at least once a week,” Cindy said. “Our yard is a lot smaller, so we don’t garden anymore.”

“There’s the noise, but you acclimate to it,” said C.J. “Ambulances and fire trucks go by six times a day, but it didn’t take long to get used to it.”

The Novacks are one example of the new homebuyers or business owners in Covington, who aren’t just about starting something new, but are also bridging to the city’s rich past.

“The stories everyone has are such an attractive part of the community,” said Larisa Sims, Covington’s assistant city manager for economic development. “The city is alive.”

“When I go to places that are successful, it’s on a river,” said City Manager Larry Klein. “We have two in Covington, with the Ohio and Licking rivers.”

He also cited the Licking River Greenway as a way to get people into town. The Greenway is a project that will be on both sides of the Licking and will link downtown to areas as far away as Taylor Mill through trails and the river itself.

“National trends are in our favor,” Klein said. “We have the location, an incredible inventory of historical housing stock, and walkability.”

The housing stock, as in most urban areas, is often as problematic as it is beneficial, due to maintenance being done poorly or not at all. Still, that’s an issue Sims said the city has taken strides in addressing to help spur growth.

“We’ve gotten really aggressive about vacant, abandoned buildings,” she said. “We have a demolition project for the worst of the worst. There is also the Covington Community Development Initiative, which matches people who are interested in development with property the city is interested in re-developing. We have tried to turn the tides.”

“We are resetting expectations,” Milz said. “We’re saying it’s not acceptable to maintain houses this way.”

The biggest sign that the program is working — and the city is growing — is in the amount of permits issued in the city.

“In 2014, there were $24 million in permits issued,” Klein said. “There were $63 million in 2015. It shows renewed interest and confidence from people.”

“It’s mostly growth from within,” Sims said. “The days of recruiting companies of hundreds of employees are over. We focus on the notion of place-making, overcoming misconceptions of the city. Braxton itself has been a huge part of that.”

For folks like the Novacks, they’ve certainly found their place.

“Overall, we’re like, why didn’t we do this sooner?” said Cindy.

“It’s everything we hoped for — and so much more,” C.J. agreed.