Friday, October 19, 2001

Covington transforms

City works to rebuild downtown

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        COVINGTON — As Chuck Eilerman sees it, the day the old Madison Theater shut down in 1975, so did much of downtown Covington.

        “It just seemed like when the movie theater closed, that was a sign that people weren't coming downtown anymore,” said Mr. Eilerman, a commercial real estate broker active in Covington community issues. “The department stores closed. Some longtime small businesses closed or moved out. It was sad to see, but downtown and Madison Avenue went through some bad times.”

[photo] Tom Steidel (left), Covington assistant city manager, and Greg Jarvis, city manager, on Madison Avenue.
(Enquirer photo)
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        Now, as the city's riverfront booms with new development, an effort by city officials to redevelop the Madison Avenue business district appears to be paying off.

        Covington is using tax credits, low interest loans, grants and other forms of financing to attract new investment to the once-thriving corridor between the Ohio River and 12th Street.

        “This was the heart of the city, but it did go through some down times over a period of years,” said Covington Assistant City Manager Tom Steidel, who has spearheaded and oversees many of the city's development programs.

        “But now that the riverfront has developed, we're starting to see a lot of renewed interest in Madison Avenue, Scott Street, Pike Street and other areas of downtown,” Mr. Steidel said as he strolled along Madison Thursday morning.

        “And if somebody is interested, then the city is interested in them,” he said.

        Developer Jim Salyers has invested more than $5 million buying and rehabilitating buildings in downtown Covington, including the Fifth Third Bank Building, where the upper floors house the Madison EZone technology incubator; the old J.C. Penney building, now retail and offices; The Madison, a banquet and meeting hall; and 601 Madison, where his wife, Donna, operates her Fabulous Furs business.

        Almost all were vacant and were rehabilitated with financing and other programs provided by the city, Mr. Salyers said.

        “Tom Steidel and the city do the things to make it happen,” Mr. Salyers said. “They are very creative. They can come up with the numbers to make projects work.”

        An example is the old Ball Furniture building at Seventh and Madison.

        The city is lending about $65,000 to Mr. Salyers, who is paying about $1 million for the building. The loan from the city will help Mr. Salyers get started on revamping the 100-year-old building, which he is turning into a hall for wedding and receptions that will also sell wedding dresses.

        The loan is only for a year, meaning the city will have the money back in 12 months to lend to other developers interested in downtown properties, said City Manager Greg Jarvis.

        “We're doing gap financing,” Mr. Jarvis said, “giving developers and investors the final pieces of a financial package. Our role is not to be the primary lender but to help complete deals and bring some investment back downtown.”

        Mr. Steidel said the strategy is to attract businesses to intersections. That, he said, will help bring other retailers into the stores along the street.

        Developers are scouting buildings at Pike and Madison, Fifth and Madison and Sixth and Madison. The city is offering some sort of financial assistance, mostly in loans, for all three projects.

        “Go for the corners and hopefully other development will follow,” he said. “The idea is to create energy. Get one project and others will feed off of that.”

        A project generating a lot of excitement in Covington is the anticipated reopening of the Madison Theater, an 89-year-old movie house that is scheduled to open by year's end as an 1,100-seat concert venue that will also house meetings, banquets and dances.

        Located in the 700 block of Madison, it was redeveloped by Classic Properties, whose president, Esther Johnson, is a long-time investor in Covington properties. The city provided a low-interest $100,000 loan for the $2.5 million project.

        Other projects in the works include:

        • Development of a $5 million parking garage the city plans to build at Fifth and Scott streets, once block east of Madison. That will provide parking for Madison Avenue businesses while helping spur development on Scott Street, Mr. Jarvis said.

        • The recent sale of the old Sears store and adjacent bowling alley on Sixth Street.

        • New businesses moving on to Pike Street just off Madison.

        • Plans for a new county jail, administrative offices and parking garage on Pike, a project that will bring workers downtown, Mr. Steidel said.

        City officials admit there is still much work to be done.

        Madison Avenue still has a number of vacant buildings, strip clubs and bars. Several buildings are still for sale and the slowing economy is a concern.

        But Mr. Eilerman, who has several properties listed in downtown Covington, said he is optimistic that after years of successful riverfront development in the city, Madison Avenue is finally starting to receive new investment and attention.

        He said well-known retailers such as Starbucks Coffee and Graeter's ice cream are looking for downtown locations.

        “I think this is the most exciting, promising time for downtown Covington in a quarter-century,” he said. “The area had been struggling but it's coming back in a big way.”


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