360 Fireworks Party

Monday, December 19, 2011


by Michael Monks 
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A tumultuous year in Covington is winding down and With the new year comes the annual gift of starting fresh and new. Covington should embrace that opportunity tightly. 2011 will be remembered throughout 2012 as the previous year's effects emerge during budget adjustments, elections, and planning. In the new year, Covington needs a game-changer and fast, and many opportunities exist for it to happen. The most important act that the People of Covington can do to contribute to positive change is to pay attention and to be involved. Covington's best attribute is its people and their passion but the vocal population must grow in 2012 to include those that have never spoken up before. The River City News was born in 2011 and will continue and grow in 2012 as a committed source for the issues that matter to Covingtonians. 2012 will be an important year in our history and we all must work to ensure its positive significance. 
But for now, a look back on the top ten stories that shaped Covington's narrative in 2011.
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What a stunning display of holiday cheer and civic pride. This Christmas season, Sims Furniture pulled out all the stops to present a retro, old-school holiday window display featuring elves, reindeer and Santa & Mrs. Claus - and they all move. The Santa's workshop image stretched the entire front of the building, filling each window and thrilling every passerby. Sims's new management worked with a design team from Cincinnati to create an enchanting tribute to the North Pole that could thaw the frozen hearts of even the most dispassionate Grinch. In an age where large, independent retailers are few and far between in urban centers, and those that do remain too often refrain from large scale displays, Sims offered a welcome return to a time when holiday shopping was also a visual experience shared by families. That time returned to one block in Covington this holiday season and the people are grateful for the memories and the experience.
Volunteers at Madison Avenue Christian Church
The tragedy that Pike Street has lost its status as a retail Mecca in Northern Kentucky several decades ago is made worse by the slowness of its revitalization. The sidewalks are still heavily trekked but no longer by crowds of shoppers. Instead, the downtrodden and less fortunate travel the busy corridor that has become homebase for homeless shelters. It is easy and typical to deplore the fact that Pike Street has a high number of shelters, but it is much more difficult to combat the issues that lead to their necessity. Until society wholly answers the cause of intense poverty in these United States, Covington has risen to the occasion and serves as a welcoming home to those in need. That is not a black eye on the City, rather it is a feat that should be worn as a badge of honor. The good people that operate The Welcome House, the Parish Kitchen, Fairhaven, the Emergency Shelter, and the people that feed the hungry at the Madison Avenue Christian Church are on the front lines in the war on poverty. That war is waged on too many of Covington's streets where too many people live without homes including the highest number of schoolchildren in Kentucky. Stories emerged this year of a former resident of the Welcome House enrolling in medical school and multiple takes from the Emergency Shelter have formerly homeless men gaining employment and housing. And how about the way the community rose up to raise the money that was not available this year to buy Christmas gifts for John G. Carlisle students. Good stuff. Covington is fortunate to be a helping hand to the less fortunate.
flow - a shop for men
The bad news is that Covington, like many urban cities, has a high number of empty storefronts. The good news is that they are starting to fill with committed, passionate shop owners. Additionally, the ones that planted their seeds here in Northern Kentucky's capital city years ago have seen a higher than usual number of transactions during the holiday shopping season. Perhaps 2011 has served as a year in which the openings and closings finally balanced out. For every Enchanted Florist, AJ's Creations, Mad Hatter, and Greek to Me that closed, there was a flow - a shop for men, Goodfella's Pizzeria, Bangarang's, and Fraulein's that opened. Covington should capitalize on this by showing the region that we are open for business -- small business. These businesses form the backbone of our community and give it the personality that it has and can have. Shop them. Often. And thank them. As for the larger closures of Latonia's Value City and Madison Avenue's Supervalu, those leave a larger void to fill.
In an exclusive report, The River City News presented documents from City Hall that indicated extremely poor or lacking planning when Covington launched its Arts District in the middle of the previous decade. In fact, it was discovered that a majority of the buildings within the Arts District's boundaries would be in conflict with the zoning created for it. The still-high vacany along Pike Street is evidence of the poor planning as the Arts District never really gained traction, seemingly making every urban planning mistake possible from the zoning to the marketing. The City voted this year to do away with the District and return it to the central business zoning that it had previously. The Arts District manager will be reassigned. In spite of the failed intentions of the District, the arts have been on the rise in Covington. The Carnegie Visual & Performing Arts Center is a competitive destination within Cincinnati's theatre scene, with its own productions, NKU's Commonwealth Theatre and the recently announced move of Showbiz Players to the facility. The shows, art exhibits and concert series have helped boost the Carnegie's image and importance. Baker Hunt continues to set a standard for celebrating arts and culture and in 2012 will celebrate 90 years of doing it. On Pike Street, the Artisan Enterprise Center has booked interesting shows all year and Art-Off-Pike was a big hit. Arts grow organically and the arts proved that by sprouting up around the Arts District and in spite of it.
After six murders in Covington, neighborhood leaders had had enough and organized Stand Up Covington, a march against violence. Not only had the number of murders risen to more than the previous three years combined, the brutality had also increased. One man's body was found dismembered and another man was murdered by someone he sponsored in an addition support group. Nearly eighty citizens, every elected official and many administrators from the city and schools joined the journey from the Carnegie to the HUB in Helentown, weaving through neighborhoods most affected by the crimes. It was a moving display of energy and devotion to a safer city. The murders have been shocking but the response has been inspiring, both through the quick action of the Covington Police to arrest suspects in each case and the community's willingness to come together and fight the problem.
Like the munchkins in Oz, plans come and go so quickly here. In fact, at least twenty plans to revitalize Downtown Covington and/or the riverfront have been developed in the past ten years. Finally, on the night that the City Commission voted to rid the City of its failed Arts District, a contract with Denver-based Progressive Urban Management Associates was approved to develop the Center City Action Plan, the "plan of plans" to perform the Herculean task of jumpstarting the urban core. Additionally, property owners in the core will decide whether to continue the work of the Urban Partnership through a Business Improvement District, funded by an increase in property taxes as an effort to increase visibility and cleanliness Downtown. The CCAP being developed by PUMA will be unveiled in the spring after workshops, public forums and surveys are completed. This time, more people are engaged and paying attention to the effort and the plan will be heavily scrutinized and its follow-through will be monitored. This story will help set the tone for 2012 in Covington, so stay tuned.
When you dance with the devil you're bound to get burned. And if the devil danced in empty pockets, he'd have a ball in Covington. Kentucky offered millions in taxpayer money to lure Omnicare from Cincinnati and Nielsen from Florida. When the so-called "incentives" ran out, Omnicare announced plans to vacate its RiverCenter space and Nielsen started packing at Madison Place because there more "incentives" to be had in Cincinnati. In a gross display of the redistribution of jobs and wealth, Republican Ohio Governor and Democrat Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory exhibited a bipartisan con job exploiting the worst style of American economics, a race-to-the-bottom system that pits cities and states against each other. Not one job was created by this blatant transaction of corporate welfare and section-8 office space for the multi-billion dollar businesses that benefited from it. Covington's already threatened finances suddenly looked bleaker. $1.5 million in payroll taxes from Omnicare and Nielsen will no longer fill the City's coffers. Madison Place may fall into foreclosure. Covington's relatively new skyline will shine less brightly when all of the lights are off. As city administration plans to redevelop the riverfront, priority number one must remain the development of smaller firms that can occupy the fledgling towers on RiverCenter Boulevard. 
Motorists passing through the busy Ritte's Corner in Latonia will drive under a proud banner congratulating the Holy Cross Indians on its 2011 Class 2A Kentucky state football championship. The southwest corner of 36th & Church Streets will be renamed 'Champions Corner' in honor of the team that broke back the coveted trophy in just the program's fourteenth year of existence. Helmed by former Cincinnati Bengal Bruce Kozerski, the Indians racked up huge scoring totals, shattering school records all season but most meaningfully in the playoffs. In winning its first title, Holy Cross also claims the first such win for any school in Covington, the final NKY River City to be on top in high school football. Since their victory, the team has been celebrated in rousing fashion in the streets upon their return and at the school's gym that weekend as well as in a more subdued manner at City Hall and various other programs. The pride generated by this historic achievement will last well into 2012. 
Commissioner Steve Frank (right) was an outspoken
critic of the unions during the budget debate
The most divisive issue the City has dealt with in ages was how to balance its crippled budget for the 2011-12 fiscal year. While Covington has had an increase in the number of shows performed at the Carnegie and the Madison, no performance was more talked about than the 'Budget Road Show' starring City Manager Larry Klein and Finance Director Bob Due. Neighborhood by neighborhood, the duo traveled to explain how they saw Covington's finances shaping up and what the major cause of the deficit was: health care benefits for the City's unionized workforce. Unsurprisingly, that interpretation did not sit well with the city's three public employee unions who packed City Hall during commission meetings and held a well-publicized rally in Goebel Park. The employees defended their compensation and benefits and argued for the elimination of positions like the ombudsman and the arts district manager in lieu of police, fire or public improvement workers. Enter first-term City Commissioner Steve Frank and a burning debate erupted into a full fledged wildfire with most of the back and forth leaving City Hall and reemerging with more vitriol on social networking websites. In one of the most depressing periods in recent memory, civility was nowhere to be found. Ultimately, a budget contingency plan was accepted by the four commissioners with Mayor Denny Bowman the sole vote opposed to layoffs and benefit reductions. The most vocal union, Local 38 representing firefighters, fought with the City all the way to a courtroom. Since then, the debate has simmered and the results of the contingency budget are emerging. Many veteran firefighters and police officers retired early to spare new employees from layoffs, and new employees are being hired in part-time capacities. A new budget debate will take shape in 2012 as the City plans to deal with the money lost to Omnicare and Nielsen's move. Only this time, both sides will be veteran fighters and the bout could be bloodier. Let's hope for more respect the next time around.
The successes and failures of the previous year along with all of the plans for the future now rest squarely on the shoulders of a man who has never before held public office. That may a good thing for Chuck Scheper who established himself as a successful business leader in Greater Cincinnati. Scheper was appointed mayor following the resignation Denny Bowman. The two men could not be more different. Bowman spent more than 25 years as an elected official and between his two stints as mayor he served Covington as recreation director. Bowman's tireless defense of the public employees and his old school progressive politics were overrun and defeated during the budget debate. After weeks of finding himself on the losing end of 4 - 1 votes, Bowman unceremoniously vanished from the public eye, resigning through a note addressed to City Manager Larry Klein. After months of fiery outbursts in support of the unions from the dais at City Hall, Bowman ended his tenure quietly and has not been heard from publicly since. His effortless recitation of employee names from today and yesterday combined with his jovial small-town-mayor personality was enjoyed in Covington for decades and the man deserves a street or something named in his honor. Now, Chuck Scheper is called upon to pick up the pieces and move the city forward. His calm, somewhat shy demeanor has only been on display a few times since the appointment.  Scheper has been endearing to watch as he learns the nuts and bolts of presiding over meetings and making public appearances. A wealthy, generous man, Scheper personally financed the hiring of an interim arts district manager. That, in addition to his personal defeat of cancer and his personal crusade to cure it, has established many hopes upon him. Scheper is a thoughtful, skilled visionary who loves Covington and now as the City's chief executive must channel every ounce of his abilities to move us all forward. Covington does not have a strong mayor form of government, but a strong mayor, in some form, is what Covington needs. Scheper understands this and may be why he came out of retirement so quickly to accept such a role he never would have wanted. The tone, tenor and direction of 2012 will be set by him. Let's all watch and stay engaged to answer the call to move the City forward just like Scheper did. 
There will be many stories to watch out for in 2012, especially the force education is playing in the City. Gateway College's plans for its urban campus and the expansion of Covington Latin School are good news to follow as we await their impact. The Covington branch of the Kenton County Library is undergoing a major expansion as well and its impact is highly awaited too. Covington Independent Schools continues to struggle academically and financially and next year as a school board race unfolds, all of our eyes will need to be on the district to ensure that it is on the right path, and if not, figure out how to get it there. The district faces a number of unique hurdles, but it is past time to get beyond them. 
Additionally, the Center City Action Plan and its implementation may be the game changer we are all hoping for. But that will only be if we watch and stay involved. 
Also, what are the plans for Latonia? The populous, important neighborhood is so often left out of revitalization discussions but there is too much history and promise for that to continue. 
The River City News will be there in 2012 just as in 2011, except bigger and more involved. Thank you for your continued readership. What a great city to cover and to call home. Happy Holidays & Happy New Year!

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