By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer
HIGHLAND HEIGHTS - When nearly 80 Kentucky lawmakers were spending two days in the region last week, local business leaders and officials made sure the legislators had a good time.
But not too good.
Amid the riverboat trip to the Cincinnati Reds ballgame, the pride over projects like Newport on the Levee and the Wednesday night drinking and singing at the Hofbrauhaus, the legislators' hosts wanted to convey the message that despite a lot of success, Northern Kentucky still needs help - mostly in the form of money - from Frankfort.
While eager to show off the region, organizers of the event - mainly the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and a few business owners and developers - expressed some quiet concern that lawmakers might get the impression that the region's economy is going so well that down-state assistance is not needed.
Further exacerbating the anxiety is that so many other places around Kentucky, particularly rural areas, are suffering because of the slow economy.
So the hubris was tempered with some humility, such as when chamber president Gary Toebben addressed lawmakers who sit on the Appropriations and Revenue Committee, the panel that oversees the budget.
Toebben did make a request for up to $60 million in state funding for three projects:
An on-campus arena at Northern Kentucky University that would cost $40 million to $45 million.
$10 million to buy land and provide infrastructure for Riverfront West, a proposed $800 million residential and business project along the Ohio River in Covington.
And $5 million to build a museum at Big Bone Lick State Park in southern Boone County.
But Toebben also took time to thank lawmakers for approving money and incentives to pay for existing projects, including the science building at Northern Kentucky University, initial funding for the Gateway Community College and tax breaks for the Levee and Hofbrauhaus tourist attractions.
Toebben also said the local economy is not as booming as it might appear. Unemployment is 4.4 percent, up from about 4 percent the same time a year ago. Hotel occupancy rates are running less than 50 percent. And fallout from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks continues to affect the region and Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.
"Our largest employer, Delta Air Lines, and every travel-related business in this community, took a big hit when people stopped traveling or decided to travel less," he said. "In addition, we have three casinos that are drawing millions of dollars from Northern Kentucky residents each week."
Others had a similar sobering message for lawmakers.
NKU president Dr. James Votruba said while enrollment of about 14,000 is an all-time high, the university receives $20 million less annually that the state's other regional schools.
Dr. Edward Hughes, president of Gateway Community College, said the school being developed in Boone County needs funds to begin offering classes and worker training, particularly in the area of manufacturing.
"Manufacturing is a key component of the economic engine here in Northern Kentucky," Hughes told lawmakers. "If we don't keep our manufacturing industry strong and viable through a workforce that is well trained, they will leave. We can't afford that, and Kentucky can't afford that."
The point local leaders sought to make was that past investments of state funds have generated jobs and development - and doing so again will have the same result.
"All of the economic challenges aside, this region plans to fulfill its role as a generator of jobs and taxes for this commonwealth," Toebben said.
One the projects pushed this week to lawmakers was the Northern Kentucky Farmers Market, proposed along Scott Street in Covington.
With $5 million from the state's share of the federal tobacco settlement, developers would use another $5 million raised locally to build a project that will not only provide a retail outlet for farmers in 10 area counties, but also create up to 255 jobs and generate $8 million in sales, $15 million in spin-off development and $15 million in regional economic output.
Kentucky Speedway president Mark Simendinger, who attended many of the meetings and events that were a part of the legislators' visit, said inviting lawmakers to Northern Kentucky is a good idea that can pay future dividends.
Some lawmakers attended the June 14 Meijer 300 Busch Series auto race at the speedway, which has benefited from tax breaks provided by the Kentucky Tourism Development Act.
"Anytime that you can (have) legislators up and you can show them what you are going, it's great," said Simendinger. "They got a chance to see the speedway in action, they know what it's about, and now they understand the potential that is has."
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