Candidates for Commission Make Case to Business Council

The Covington Business Council welcomed five candidates for Covington City Commission to its monthly luncheon last Thursday. Incumbent Steve Frank, first-time candidates Chuck Eilerman, Greg Paeth, and Michelle Williams, as well as write-in candidate Chip Terry attended. Frank, Eilerman, Paeth, Terry, and candidate Mildred Rains, a former city commissioner, responded to the CBC's questionnaire which is excerpted below. The candidates in attendance at the luncheon answered the same questions live in a program moderated by The River City News's Michael Monks. Candidates Neil Gilreath and Roger Hamilton neither responded to the survey nor attended the event. Four will be elected to a two-year term that starts in January. The event, including Williams's responses, will be broadcast at a later date by the Telecommunications Board of Northern Kentucky on Insight Cable. Part one of the questions & answers are below (look for part two on Monday).

Recently the Center City Action Plan was presented to City Hall. What is your assessment of it and how should the city respond to its recommendations?

Steve Frank: ​As a City Commissioner I accepted all recommendations save two, no second-hand appliance stores will be permitted Downtown and we will not run away from our river as a marketing zone. The Ohio & Licking Rivers present some of our best redevelopment opportunities.

Chuck Eilerman: The Center City Action Plan is a composite of previous plans updated with some thoughtful observations and suggestions. I was somewhat disappointed that, beyond certain organizational proposals, it offered limited imagination and actionable results-oriented recommendations. The key for the city is to implement a structure and engage the resources to follow through on "Action". Also, pursuit of this plan should not preclude a comprehensive approach to development throughout the city, including support for critical areas south of 13th Street such as Central Covington, Latonia/Rosedale, and South Covington.

Greg Paeth: Because some twenty other similar plans on Covington have been done in the last twelve years there was a fair amount of skepticism about whether the city needed a twenty-first study, which became the Center City Action Plan. In my opinion, it is now apparent that there was good reason for skepticism. There are no major revelations in the new plan, no breakthough insights and very little that seems to provide more than a broad overview of a lot of information that we're all familiar with. At this point, it looks like the only recommendation that will get much attention is one that calls for the creation of a Business Improvement District that is designed to provide enhanced maintenance service for Downtown Covington.

Mildred Rains: The plan is no doubt a positive concept and result in an amazing transformation of the streetscape and urban environment. The issue with this plan as with the countless others commissioned by the cit is having the leadership to ensure the plan is followed through to completion as well as the ability to raise funds to develop the plan.

Chip Terry: Overall, the plan seems to address the current basic dysfunction prevalent in the core of the city. It also appears to address the tremendous potential inherent in the historical and architectural quality of the area. The first steps I would consider taking: Stabilize the neighborhoods; Over recent years many neighborhoods in the plan area have seen positive changes but there are also stable neighborhoods in the same area that have recently seen rapid deterioration. Identify the most vulnerable pockets and aggressively develop actions relative to the plan. Focus on small and medium sized business development; Improve communication with/assistance to existing businesses in the plan area; Identify those that have the potential for growth and assist them with finding space and funding to retain them in the area; Use these businesses as resources for identifying and attracting other small/medium sized business; Establish a strong marketing campaign to attract other small/medium business to backfill space vacated by those moving up; Create a small/medium business pipeline and develop strategic alliances with organizations within the region that represent small/medium sized business so that there are existing relationships with such entities.

Michelle Williams: I think that the Center City Action Plan is a great focus point to start addressing some of Covington's needs.  I support the idea to concentrate on Madison Ave, with the opportunities involving Gateway Urban Campus; this area would be able to welcome small business such as bookstore, music store and small restaurants.

Small upstart business and larger corporations have different needs when considering locations. How will you best address the needs of both in an effort to attract them?

Frank: For luring larger businesses we have found that we have at best a strained relationship with Tri-Ed. We are therefor pioneering efforts to market and brand the city via the Urban Partnership of the Covington Business Council and to start building a framework to pool resources with our urban neighbors to do what what Cincinnati has done by resurrecting its Port Authority. Between a revised Port Authority, the Urban Partnership, creating TIF and BID districts, the Catalytic Fund acting as our version of 3CDC and a revised economic development department in City Hall which no longer is involved with housing issues, we feel we can change the focus of the city to being a business friendly place for both large and small business. We also plan to keep rolling back our payroll tax rate.

Eilerman: This is a good question. There is another differentiation to be considered which is existing versus new businesses of any size. Our development efforts must address the full spectrum. It appears that ongoing planning includes start-up and existing business assistance in-house and larger business engagement through collaborations with partners such as the Catalytic Development Corporation of Northern Kentucky, the National Development Council, Tri-Ed, and the Port Authority. I support this approach.

Paeth: Small business and larger ones differ in terms of the type of property they might need, their square footage requirements, the size of the pool of prospective employees that they need to hire from and the size of their investment in a location. The city needs to have an energetic, passionate, devoted, focused person on staff who can establish himself or herself as the go-to person who can answer questions and follow through quickly when an upstart business or a larger corporation needs some information about opening their doors, or expanding, in Covington. Cincinnati, Newport, Florence and every other city in the country are competing for new businesses and jobs and Covington has to be competitive with the kind of incentives that it can offer. But it's not always about weighing incentive packages. When a business, big or small, determines that there's little difference in what;s being offered from one city to the next, it may come down to a question of which city is the most responsive, the most welcoming, the most appreciative of the business owner's investment decision.

Rains: Whatever entity conducts economic development in the future will need to create a template, manual, procedure, etc., to address these distinctively different needs. Currently the city seems to have to have a one-size-fits-all marketing approach to business attraction and there are very different initiatives needed to separate small, large, or even mid-sized businesses. 

Terry: Dealing with larger corporations is a much longer and intricate process. Much more expertise is required. Strategic alliances with entities that specialize in such projects will be necessary to facilitate a productive and efficient process. Larger corporations generally benefit most from tax incentive. Enticing such corporations will require assistance from county and state officials. Most incentives for larger companies, while state-led, will require a local component like an occupational tax abatement. It is important to develop positive working relationships with state political and departmental officials to facilitate timely and efficient negotiations with larger corporations. Small upstart businesses are much more reliant on programs that help them navigate the start-up process. Knowledge sharing, expertise, and facilitation are important value-added resources that should be made available to upstarts. Also, such entities are in need of working capital; low/no interest loans and grants, funding for build-out and facility costs, marketing and promotional assistance. The state has a number of programs designed to assist small and medium sized businesses to secure needed resources.

Williams: I think it is easier for me to help attract small businesses rather that large, because ofmy experience.  I would suggest that we start by having a Welcome to Covington New Business Packet, which would let any small business that wants to  locate in Covington, have all of our rules and procedures and infonnation needed to open up business in a timely manner.  I would work with the Mayor and Commission to come up with ways to attract corporations. 

What kind of marketing strategy should Covington implement to start filling its many vacant storefronts?

Frank: As part of our reorganization of Covington's economic development team we have instituted two new positions, a full-time marketing position to reach out to new businesses and to make existing businesses aware of opportunities to sell or showcase their businesses and an ombudsman to help any expansion or change in a business go smoothly. We believe that if you lead with better customer service and make others aware of it, that leads to new businesses coming to town. Much of our marketing will be based on the C+V=G logo that was created by a leading brand consultant, Landor, to Procter & Gamble that operates in Covington and which was done for free.

Eilerman: The best thing Covington can do to fill its vacant storefronts is to foster new employment and housing growth and to support and advocate for the economic generators such as the Madison Theater, Gateway College, the Madison Event complex, life science and technology firms, and an expanded convention center. As to a marketing strategy, the mayor's marketing team should develop a unique identity and formulate the tools to reinforce and disseminate it. Funding must be procured to take our message out to the entire Greater Cincinnati region and to visitors to our hotels and convention center. 

Paeth: I don't think it's just because we build it, i.e. fill some storefronts, they will come. I can think of several businesses in recent years, two bakeries, a restaurant, and a coffeehouse along Pike Street that quickly failed because the owners may not have had an accurate picture of where Downtown Covington is today. Covington marketing has to be realistic and unvarnished, focusing on the availability of some great nineteenth century storefronts that are suitable for small shops and some second and third floor space that could become spectacular living quarters. In the past, the city may have oversold the Arts District, for example, and then failed to follow through on promises that had been made to people who invested many thousands of dollars in Covington real estate. If we rebuild the neighborhoods, including the residential element of the Central Business District, entrepreneurs will figure out what businesses will work Downtown.

Rains: One block at a time. Start with the worst commercial block in the city, the 800 block of Madison. Strive to force a change of ownership starting in a cooperative manner, and if not successful move on to other approaches. Then move outward to the 700 and 900 blocks. This type of approach is very doable. 

Terry: As a commissioner my role would not be to design specific marketing strategies. My goal would be to determine what concept/structure would best provide those services and to create an environment conducive to encouraging businesses to consider coming to Covington. My preference would be to make the strategy part of an overall economic development plan under the umbrella of private/public relationship. That is not to say that I would not promote such spaces to any of the many individuals with whom I have business relationships.

Williams: I believe that Covington has some good programs set in place, such as the Small Business Loan Program and the Grow Covington Fund these are a great way to start filling empty store fronts. We really need to push the C+V=G concept and encourage entrepreneurs to locate in Covington.

An effort is underway to create a business improvement district for Downtown Covington. Do you support this idea?

Frank: ​Absolutely. We on the commission have done everything in our power to help market the idea and help in the solicitation of funds. A BID is like a TIF. When tax dollars go to City Hall there is no telling where the money may end up being spent. Money raised by a BID stays with the BID to clean up and market.

Eilerman: I support the business improvement district based upon the experience of other communities such as Cincinnati and Louisville and the substantial accomplishments of the demonstration project.

Paeth: As a member of the Urban Partnership board that is working with the Covington Business Council to create the district, I'm fully supportive of the plan. I believe that if there is some true commitment to the program, more than just half-hearted agreement with the concept, the program could have a powerful impact on existing businesses, on businesses that may be considering a location in Covington and on prospective customers. One of the challenges will be creating the right management structure for the district so that money doesn't get piddled away on administrative costs and another level of bureaucracy.

Rains: Very supportive and have seen a difference from the efforts to remove litter thus far. Funding may be a challenge but it is money well spent once we establish an identity.

Terry: At this point I do not fully understand the concept and I am reviewing a study done by Cornell University.

Williams: Yes, Business Improvement Districts have been important partners in the economic development. From the central business districts to local shopping areas, BIDs make valuable contributions to the life of our neighborhoods. Establishing a BID is a serious effort that involves the work of local businesses, public officials and other community stakeholders.