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Covington economic development report: ‘A Lot of Hard Truths’ in Garner Economics five-year plan

By Ryan Clark
NKyTribune reporter

“Control your destiny,” legendary General Electric CEO Jack Welch famously said, “or someone else will.”

It was a quote Covington commissioners heard several times at their regularly scheduled legislative meeting Tuesday night, where Atlanta-based Garner Economics made an hour-long presentation that laid out a five-year economic development strategy for the city.

More than 50 people – many of whom took part in the Garner study, either as consultants or interviewees – came out to listen to the recommendation, which was delivered by company founder Jay Garner, a fan of quotes like the one from Welch

But, as he told the commission, the quote really does ring true in this case, because the fate of the city is in the staffs’ hands. They can control Covington’s destiny — or someone else will. 

The seven-month project included interviews with more than 40 people in four separate groups in February, to gauge the mentality of a cross-section of the population.

The findings?

Garner noted there were many positives, including a general feeling of momentum and good leadership, but he noted that people also described a city with an aging infrastructure and a lack of a cohesive vision. 

The business climate was described as “good,” and Garner – who has been working in economic development for 39 years – said “We don’t normally see that.” Still, a lack of city resources was also noted.

From an economic and labor perspective, the Garner group noted that Covington is, on average, made up of a fairly young population, is affordable, and the majority of the area is wired for Internet access. On the negative side, there’s been a recent population decline, and there’s a high poverty rate.

Then there are a few other positives that are uniquely Covington, namely a high rate of inclusivity and diversity, which are both attractive to prospective businesses.

So, with the aforementioned lack of resources, along with the eventual departure of the IRS and the pension crisis looming, how can the city maximize its strengths and work to correct its weaknesses? Garner and his team have ideas. 

First, they suggested to Reimagine Covington:

Create a Manufacturing Makerspace to complement Covington’s already robust entrepreneurial framework.

Encourage and help facilitate a long-range, regional infrastructure plan.

Create a plan to improve gateways into the city—including new signage, landscaping, and beautification initiatives.

Incentivize remote workers to move to Covington.

Evaluate relocation of Gateway Community and Technical College’s Urban Campus.

Develop and Invest in Real Estate Product for the city – (And leverage the former IRS site for the highest-and-best use for Covington).

Next, they suggested to use Effective City Support and Implementation:

Evaluate options to bring all building permits and inspections back under city control.

Augment the city’s economic development department staff to successfully implement operational and strategic efforts.

Update Covington’s existing incentive policy and tools.

Conduct community leadership learning labs to other “inspirational” communities (intercity visits).

 Lastly, they encouraged the city to better tell the Covington story:

Enhance the city’s Economic Development Department’s marketing tools and tactics in its external outreach efforts.

Undertake focused external outreach efforts to allied economic development partners and multipliers.

Conduct a focused, targeted outreach to Cincinnati area real estate brokers and developers.

Conduct targeted company and consultant calls.

  “There’s a lot of truths in your report and your analysis — a lot of hard truths,” said Mayor Joseph U. Meyer. He noted the city has an opportunity to move toward that unified vision, improve on its strengths and take responsibility for the weaknesses. 

He said the report not only reflected the city’s economic reality, but also took into account the opinions of the residents, which was vital. 

The commission did not take action on the presentation; instead, Meyer said they would discuss it further and likely act on it sometime in August.

Commissioners approved the hiring of Garner in December, when City Economic Development Director Tom West introduced the company as a well-respected national consulting firm for economic development known for its data analysis, and its ability to explain situations in “plain English” and implement their ideas.

The $100,000 project is funded with $50,000 of lease funds from the Kentucky Career Center designated for economic development projects, as well as an additional $50,000 from the TIF District.

Commissioners approve bid for Riverfront Commons

Commissioners approved a $6.5 million contract with Prus Construction for the Riverfront Commons project from Madison to Greenup.

The project will have multi-use paths, a 1,350-seat amphitheater and improved overlooks for Madison and Scott, as well as benches, trails, bike racks, lighting, 4,100 new plantings of trees, grasses and plants, and garbage cans. 

Other highlights include:

Parking: Removed 70 spaces and added 16 (most visitors will park in the city garages, staff say)

Pedestrian only area – no vehicular traffic will be allowed

16 new trees planted

Fire facility study approved

Commissioners moved forward with a contract with Brandstetter Carroll for a fire facility study. In April, the city issued an RFP for a fire facility study for the company 2 fire station. 

The city received 10 responses, and determined Brandstetter Carroll had the best proposal. The study is not to exceed $27,730 and will be paid for in grants, said Chief Mark Pierce. 

Bonnie Meyer wins Unbridled Spirit Award

Field Supervisor John C.K. Fisher said it was easy to nominate someone for the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights Unbridled Spirit Award. The name that easily came to mind? Bonnie Meyer, the founding director of the Office of LGBTQ Programs and Services at Northern Kentucky University and someone who has the “compassion to listen to young people” and the “strength to push for fairness ordinances,” Fisher said.

Meyer was presented the award at the commission meeting Tuesday night.

In her acceptance speech she noted it is a “challenge” to do this kind of work in Kentucky, where people in the LGBTQ community are not as protected as they are in other states, but that she loves working in Covington, which does have one of the most respected fairness acts in the Commonwealth.

“It’s my pleasure to do this work,” she said. 

The next regularly scheduled Covington Commission meeting will be a legislative meeting held at 6 p.m., Aug. 6, at the Covington City Hall at 20 West Pike St.

Contact the Northern Kentucky Tribune at news@nkytrib.com

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