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Pat Frew: CBC golden anniversary marks 50 years of business advocacy for Covington and the region

The 50-year history of the Covington Business Council this year is linked together in countless ways to the history of Covington, which celebrated its 200th birthday in 2015.

It should come as no surprise that housing and retailing trends that emerged throughout the country shortly after World War II had profound impacts on Covington, which had no immunity to the exodus out of urban areas to the suburbs.

In 1950, Covington had a population of more than 64,000, a figure that fell to some 60,000 in 1960 and 52,535 by 1970, when Census Bureau numbers showed a decline of more than 18 percent over that 20-year period. That population decrease also contributed to a demographic shift as more affluent Covingtonians moved south to Park Hills, Edgewood and Lakeside Park, where new homes, quiet subdivisions and backyard cookouts seemed to be vital elements of the American Dream, circa 1975.

Pat Frew

Retailing also changed dramatically during those post-war decades as shopping centers and enclosed malls began to wrestle for sales with more traditional stand-alone retailers in places like Appleton, WI; Edina, MN, Miami Beach, Santa Monica and Paramus, NJ.

In downtown Covington, most business owners and the banking community probably knew in the early 1970s that much-ballyhooed plans to build the enclosed 940,000-square-foot Florence Mall with acres of free parking wasn’t going to provide any good news for an aging business district that radiated out from Pike and Madison in downtown Covington.

The city’s financial community responded on April 14, 1972 by announcing the creation of the Covington Urban Redevelopment Effort (CURE), a bank-driven organization that hoped to “CURE” the downtown business malaise with some special events and a pedestrian mall – “Old Town Plaza” on Pike and Seventh streets — that would capitalize on the city’s history, its historic architecture and its status as the region’s largest city.

When Old Town Plaza construction began, downtown – like many suburban malls – had four “anchor” department stores: Sears, JC Penney, Montgomery Ward and the locally-owned Coppin’s

At the helm of CURE was banker Ralph V. Haile Jr., the former Army Air Corps fighter pilot whose Peoples Liberty Bank at Sixth and Madison was a major player in the city and the regional economies.

The organization was created long before the concept of board “diversity” received much attention. Executives from 14 banks and savings and loans and the Covington Mutual Fire Insurance Company funded CURE from the beginning. Mayor Bernard Grimm and City Manager Paul Royster served on an advisory board and played key roles in determining whether the city would provide support for the organization.

Florence Mall opened its doors in 1976 and proved to be the catalyst for a long list of commercial spinoffs along Mall and Houston roads that have fueled spectacular growth in Florence and Boone County, which are now the region’s retailing hub.

Old Town Plaza, which opened a year later, struggled to compete with Florence, which had quickly established itself as the primary shopping destination in Northern Kentucky.

After seven years of mixed results downtown, CURE was positioned for a rebranding, which took place in 1979, when the Covington Retail Merchants Association disbanded and then merged with CURE to create ACT For Covington, which focused on promoting downtown businesses and developing Covington’s riverfront.

ACT for Covington’s most visible accomplishment proved to be a supporting role in the $80 million Corporex development of the 19-story River Center I and 16-story River Center II, office towers that include an Embassy Suites Hotel and other businesses. A couple of years later, Corporex, led by developer Bill Butler, completed Madison Place, a 15-story high-rise that includes a hotel, apartments and condos that overlook the river.

The organization kicked itself into gear in January of 1980 with its first monthly ACT “Action Report” and Gov. John Y. Brown Jr. was the keynote speaker for its first annual meeting in the fall of that year.

ACT emphasized its role in attracting and promoting new businesses in downtown Covington, advocating for I-75 improvements, a new bridge that would link Covington and Cincinnati and new parking facilities, as well as an ambitious clean-up campaign that was launched midway through 1982.

But from the Covington Business Council perspective, ACT for Covington and its board of directors made its most significant decision on June 20, 1990, when ACT voted to change its name to the Covington Business Council.

Today, the Covington Business Council boasts a roster of more than 430 member companies, with large compositions in the Professional Services (legal, accounting, financial services) and Government/NonProfit with significant reach in the Creative Services (Branding, Design, Marketing, Communications) and Building and Construction (including Engineering and Architecture.

The CBC has matched the tremendous growth the City has experienced the previous decade in economic development with CBC membership growing from 130 member companies in late 2010 to more than 430 member companies today. More than 100 education and networking events are hosted annually, including the weekly Wednesday morning CBC Connects, which is a business leads group, monthly luncheons, evening socials along with Hard Hat Tours and quarterly nonprofit “Lunch and Learns.”

The CBC strives to advocate for businesses and for projects designed to spur growth among its members. Examples include reducing liquor license fees for bars, helping Covington Schools grow its workplace mentoring programming by recruiting CBC stakeholders and providing regular updates on critical infrastructure projects like the Brent Spence Bridge, the Roebling Suspension Bridge and the Fourth Street Bridge linking Newport and Covington.

All these initiatives have inspired great loyalty as the Council’s comprehensive member survey last fall showed 81 percent polled felt the CBC experience was “extremely or very satisfying.” While CBC takes great solace in this finding, organizers realize the process of representing the businesses of Covington and around the region is a journey that takes a continued and renewed commitment to service and excellence in the days and years ahead.

Pat Frew is Executive Director of the Covington Business Council. For a list of golden anniversary events visit cbcky.com.

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