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OPINION: Northern Kentucky has an identity problem

Brent Cooper, Northern Kentucky Chamber President

By Brent Cooper

Over the past year as NKY Chamber president, I’ve noticed people don’t seem to agree about what makes up Northern Kentucky. Not even our top elected officials, business and civic leaders.  If you asked 10 people what Northern Kentucky is, you might get 10 different answers.

We are a direction — Northern. We are the south side of Cincinnati. We are a collection of small towns. We are a thriving urban area. We are a mix of urban and rural. We are either three counties, four counties, six counties, or even eight or nine counties.

It surprised me to learn that most organizations that have NKY in the name, don’t define the region the same way. In my opinion, because we aren’t one big city or county, we lose influence, on both sides of the river. We struggle, more than we should, to get our fair share of recognition and resources.

From time to time, you’ll hear folks lament, “Most in Frankfort think of us as Cincinnati, and most in Cincinnati don’t think of us at all.”

The good news is, we have strong judge/executives leading our counties, passionate school superintendents, and civic leaders that embrace regionalism. Over the years, they’ve garnered a strong reputation for working together. It’s one of the things we are known for.

But we could do better.

Consider this: there are 400,000 people in our three northernmost counties alone.

If Cincinnati was Minneapolis, we’d be St. Paul. Actually, we’d be bigger. St. Paul is only 300,000 people.

In the most recent election, Jefferson County boasted nearly 600,000 registered voters. Fayette had 230,000.  If we combined our three northernmost counties, we would have over 300,000 registered voters, and would become the second largest county in the state overnight.

But would you limit Northern Kentucky to just the three northernmost counties?

The Northern Kentucky Area Development District (NKADD) is defined by the state to be eight counties in the Northern Kentucky region: Boone, Kenton, Campbell, Carroll, Gallatin, Owen, Grant, and Pendleton.

The Northern Kentucky Health Department has four counties.

Northern Kentucky Planning, NKY Water District, NKY Education Council, NKY Education Cooperative, Northern Kentucky Tri-ED, and the United Way, all consider Northern Kentucky differently.

A strong case can be made that someone in Newport should care about what happens in Grant County, if for no other reason than thousands of Ark Encounter visitors stop at Newport on the Levee and the Aquarium.

People in Covington should care about Gallatin County, because some of the 100,000 visitors watching the NASCAR race at the Kentucky Speedway will stay in Covington and visit Braxton Brewery, Blinkers Tavern and the Gruff.

People in Pendleton County should care about what happens in Boone County, because many of their citizens are making the trek to work there every day.

Regardless of the current definition, I think it is time our community has a serious conversation about what makes up the Northern Kentucky region. At the end of the day, it could be that we still have multiple definitions depending on the audience and the situation, and perhaps that’s OK.

My hope is that by talking it through, we’ll do a better job singing from the same hymnal, and ultimately be more effective in achieving our collective goals.

The NKY Chamber is going to be fostering dialogue on this topic in the coming months as we approach our 50th anniversary and look toward the next 50 years. We invite you to be part of the conversation.

If we are to progress as a region, we must first agree on who we are, and recognize we are stronger together.