Jim and Donna Salyers have taken a fabulously novel approach to downtown redevelopment
By Greg Paeth
Like many older cities throughout the country, Covington’s downtown business district slid downhill as suburban malls became the destination of choice for shoppers searching for everything from apparel to dry goods to appliances and everything in between.
While city histories claim the early decades of the 20th century as their heyday, the serious retail exodus from downtown Covington is easy to pinpoint. That began in 1976, when Florence Mall opened 10 miles south of Northern Kentucky’s largest city, transforming the then-sleepy little town into what quickly became the retail hub of the region.
Florence retailing continues to expand 35-plus years later, and Covington is immersed in another of a series of revitalization efforts designed to breathe new life into a business district that has an abundance of first-class Victorian-era storefronts and a paucity of first-class retail tenants.
There is a heartbeat, however, and the patient remains under care.
Two key people in the effort to resuscitate downtown are Jim and Donna Salyers, who repeatedly gambled on downtown real estate at a time when scores of others either packed for the suburbs or went out of business. And while commercial real estate Business Theory 101 calls for owners to buy a building and then find dependable tenants, the Salyers wound up taking another approach: buying buildings and then – sometimes by necessity – also creating the businesses to fill them.
The resulting enterprises have an unusual presence in Covington. Pre-mall downtown bustled roughly 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. six days a week, but the Salyers’ present-day properties operate off the standard business week schedule. They hum primarily when staffers are in the process of helping brides and grooms to get married, putting those events together, and then hosting them in what has become the Salyers’ own wedding district – which offers soup to nuts service, literally and figuratively.
First-floor storefronts are closed or quite sleepy most days, which can make it difficult to distinguish occupied spaces from those that have slumbered since the early 1980s.
The Madison Avenue Wedding Mall is an example. It can look nearly abandoned until rousing to activity a couple of Wednesday evenings each month when about a dozen shops and offices open for business. Bridal parties are wined and dined by the Salyers and their tenants, which include a wedding photographer, a DJ, florist, hair salon, bridal shop, travel agency, tux rental shop and the Courtyard Marriott, which offers shuttle service between The Madison Event Center at 700 Madison Avenue and the riverfront hotel.
This unusual presence downtown extends to the Salyers’ Pike Place Bingo building in what had been a JC Penney store. It’s shuttered during the day but alive at night when the games begin.
Filling some of Covington’s vacancies
A recent survey conducted by the Covington Business Council, a nonprofit association of 175 businesses working to improve local economic vitality, drove home the point that the organization and the city still have plenty of work to do. The CBC found 37 of the 81 storefronts in the heart of the business district – 45 percent – are unoccupied.
And of those that are rented, some have tenants that aren’t first choices for economic development officials. The Salyers’ signature downtown Covington property, The Madison Event Center, abuts a tattoo shop, which is a couple of doors from a pawn business. A couple of vacant storefronts are just across Madison Avenue.
Several city and business sources said downtown certainly would be far more appealing with a few more investors like the Salyers, whose properties are valued at about $5.4 million, according to Kenton County tax records.
Since 1987, they have acquired seven key pieces of property, buildings that once housed some of Covington’s best-known business anchors – Penney’s, Woolworth’s, Tillman’s Furniture, two bank buildings, a Goldsmith’s department store and the former Wadsworth Electric building four blocks from the heart of the central business district.
“Their impact has been almost immeasurable,” said Covington City Manager Larry Klein, whose City Hall office is just across Seventh Street from The Madison Event Center, which was a Woolworth’s when downtown Covington buzzed with activity. “They were early pioneers, and they had a vision and a confidence about what Covington could be.”
Jim Salyers said 99 percent of his property is rented and that The Madison Event Center and The Madison South – rental facilities that bookend the east side of one key block in the business district – handle about 500 weddings a year. When the buildings are booked up on a weekend, 2,000 people flock downtown, Salyers said.
Klein, for one, doesn’t think that’s hyperbole.
“It is real; I see it. A lot of nights I leave City Hall after 6, and I can see the activity in the buildings. I can see the people. What they bring in (through weddings and special events) on the weekends is fantastic,” Klein said. “I think they are model entrepreneurs. They bring in people, and they bring in new jobs.”
Business Improvement District proposed
Pat Frew, executive director of the Covington Business Council, said the Salyers have been extremely generous in their contributions to his organization. They also are supportive of plans to form a downtown Business Improvement District patterned after a similar district in Louisville, he said. If the BID plan clears all the hurdles, property owners such as the Salyers will be asked to pay an assessment to cover costs for special services and improvements inside the district.
“They have their footprint all over downtown Covington, and their concept has been to establish cross-selling opportunities with their buildings,” Frew said.
Besides the BID proposal, which could be finalized in a few months, the city is offering a variety of incentives to business owners willing to invest downtown.
Gateway Community and Technical College, now operating in a former elementary school building a couple of blocks from the business district’s heart, also has a bold $60 million-plus initiative to expand its urban campus and attract thousands of students to downtown Covington on a daily basis. That plan, though, hinges on funding from the cash-strapped state.
Jim Salyers said his commercial real estate investments in Covington were patterned after things he learned in the apartment rental business in Cincinnati, where he had been a firefighter for 14 years.
“You work for two days and you’re off for five (as a fireman), so what are you going to do with the other five?” Salyers said during a recent interview in a conference room at one of his Salyers Group properties, the former Wadsworth Electric building on 11th Street, where the company manufactured electrical wiring components from 1923 until the business was liquidated in 1990. Today it’s the home of Donna Salyers’ Fabulous-Furs. (See sidebar.)
Salyers said his purchase of the Woolworth’s building in 1987 represented his first acquisition in Kentucky and his first venture into commercial real estate. A Realtor friend contacted him about the availability of the iconic American dimestore’s property in Covington, Salyers said.
“I was always on the lookout for a good investment, and they had a ridiculous lease that supported the mortgage. I thought it was just an interesting investment,” Salyers recalled.
Becoming your own tenant
At the time of the purchase, Woolworth’s was one of a handful of retailers still surviving in the business district. Not that long after the acquisition, however, Salyers remembers getting a phone call from a Woolworth’s executive who prefaced the conversation by asking Salyers if he was sitting down. The news was not good: Woolworth’s, which would cease operations throughout the country in 1997, had decided to close the Covington store.
“They moved out and then we’re thinking, ‘Well, now, what are we going to do with this big of an eyesore?’ ” Salyers said.
Because there wasn’t much parking available during the week, Salyers said he and other family members decided that a banquet hall, something that could operate on weekends, might be a viable use for the building.
Fortunately, the 40,000-s.f. vacancy in the Woolworth building dovetailed nicely with the explosive growth of Donna Salyers’ faux fur business, then operating in Ohio.
Jim Salyers said his wife’s business was outgrowing its location in suburban Cincinnati, which prompted them to move her office to the Woolworth’s building’s downstairs. The Salyers moved into a sprawling 4,000-s.f. loft apartment that they created upstairs. A short time later, the Salyers bought the former Goldsmith’s Department Store building, which became the manufacturing center for Fabulous-Furs, and a nearby bank building, where Donna Salyers opened a retail outlet.
About the same time Jim Salyers was navigating through downtown real estate, Covington hired former Cincinnati fire chief Tom Steidel as an assistant city manager. The two former Cincinnati firefighters became friends.
“Tom would call me up and say, ‘Jim, there’s a vacant building here. You ought to buy it,’ ” Salyers said. And he took Steidel’s advice several times, gradually expanding his real estate holdings and trying to fill storefronts with “wedding district” businesses that would tie in with The Madison Event Center, where most of the events were weddings.
But after a number of wedding-related businesses tried and failed, the Salyers realized they would have to fill some of the retail space themselves.
“He (Jim) set out to create a vibrant neighborhood and he would need an anchor store, and that would be Fabulous-Bridal,” Donna Salyers said. “He contacted everyone he had ever heard of – chains, individuals, independents. No one would even consider opening a store in Covington, so, by default, we became the bridal store.”
Donna Salyers’ Fabulous-Bridal, four floors of retail that opened in 2005, has had “a huge impact on the bridal business in Cincinnati,” she said. It has been involved in more than 1,000 area weddings.
Although he has a good relationship with Steidel, Jim Salyers said the city hasn’t been as supportive of the wedding district as he would prefer. It opted instead to support an arts district plan that never blossomed.
“I’m not sure how downtown would be had we not gotten involved. I really don’t know,” said Jim Salyers, who seems reluctant to claim much credit for his accomplishments or those of his wife. “We’ve got so damn many buildings and we’ve got them full, and there are still empty buildings down there galore. Cleaning it up now is a starting point. All I can say is that when you bring in 2,000 people to downtown Covington, it’s remarkable.” n
Greg Paeth is a correspondent for The Lane Report. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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