Northern Kentucky is busy building vital bridges to a vibrant future

By Abby Laub

Northern Kentucky’s iconic bridges are symbolic — like the historic John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge — of the region’s meteoric rise to new heights. (Photo by Christian Vetter, RedFly Media)

The Northern Kentucky region might already have 10 actual bridges, but it’s busy building many more as it continually transforms itself into an even better place to live, work and play. Bridges to a better future – through education, infrastructure, innovation, entrepreneurship, and a better quality of place that beckons everyone to stay a while – or forever.

“Northern Kentucky is a true community ready for change,” said Karen Finan, interim president and CEO of Northern Kentucky Tri-ED. “It’s willing to face its challenges and embrace its attributes. We work together to accelerate growth – in the corporate sector; of community leaders – knowing it’s in our best interest to identify and implement transformative, regional initiatives.”

Construction – real or abstract – to achieve transformation requires unified purpose, talent, enthusiasm, vision, long-term planning and money. Now, more than ever, there are regional leaders, citizens and business leaders linking together to build more “bridges,” and one place they’re gathering and giving their money is with Horizon Community Funds.

Founded in 2017 and led by President Nancy Grayson, HCF raised a cool $18 million in just one year; uniting resources with the purpose of raising the quality of life for all people in Northern Kentucky.

“We’re choosing not to focus on a particular content area,” Grayson said. “From the outset we said we’d help break the cycle of poverty, support the arts, and more.”

Now, HCF is focusing on a broader spectrum, including the opioid crisis, workforce development and worker pipeline, affordable housing, healthcare and overall public health.

“Our goal at the outset was $50 million in five years, but we think we’re going to get there in more like three to four years now,” Grayson said. “We’ve been growing our funds and spreading our mission … This is the first time we’ve ever had this togetherness (in the region). There is this fierce pride that we have. People who live work or play here; they see that there is this sense of bonded-ness that I think is really good right now. This is why you’re seeing better alignment because there is excitement about the growth we’re experiencing.”

HCF collaborates with private sector donors and partners, but also with the Northern Kentucky Regional Alliance, the Northern Kentucky Chamber, Tri-ED, Catalytic Fund, and United Way of Greater Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky.

They see Horizon as an “endowment for Northern Kentucky,” Grayson said. “It’s focusing on innovation, acceleration, leveraging resources and making dollars go further.”

The excitement is palpable at the NKY Chamber, where President & CEO Brent Cooper is settling into his second year at the helm of the 250-member strong organization.

“By any measure, we had an amazing first year. Membership increased, attendance at our events also went up, and we recently had one of the largest annual dinners in a decade with over 1,100 people celebrating the kick off to our 50th anniversary year,” Cooper noted. “Most importantly, our advocacy efforts and our regional involvement have been focused on improving our economy. This year we were able to boast the lowest unemployment rate and highest worker participation rate in the commonwealth.”

The chamber and its members are helping build more bridges in the private sector. Sometimes the evidence shows in the form of new announcements, new hires or simply anecdotal proof that things are humming along nicely.

“We’ve seen a record number of ribbon cuttings and business expansions this year across our region,” Cooper said, adding that the region’s top growth areas continue to be healthcare, advanced manufacturing, logistics & distribution, I.T., finance and construction. “We have one of the fastest growing counties in the state of Kentucky in Boone County. Also, folks in Cincinnati are often surprised to hear that the fastest growing county in the Cincinnati MSA can be found in Northern Kentucky!”

The swelling numbers require, among other things, growing the workforce. This is an issue that’s not necessarily unique to the region, but the way that Northern Kentucky leaders are handling it is special.

“I’m excited to see businesses in all of these sectors taking a more creative and collaborative approach to addressing their workforce needs,” he said. “They aren’t just paying people more, they are also looking at a range of benefits that can help attract and retain talent. Things like tuition reimbursement, transportation, and childcare for their employees.”

Making a workplace attractive is one thing, but getting workers there or making existing workers or students more qualified is another. That’s where an all new initiative is coming into place.

Bridges to Education

“We’re taking a unique regionally collaborative approach to addressing workforce issues by looking at the entire spectrum of workforce development,” Cooper said. “Our new Growing Regional Outcomes through Workforce (GROW NKY) initiative that launched earlier this year, looks at early childhood education, K-12 years, adult learning, business policies and practices, and talent attraction and retention. Just improving one of those areas, without addressing the others, doesn’t get us where we want to go. We’re bringing partners throughout the region to the NKY Chamber to work together on all of these issues.”

He said ultimately the region needs a dramatic increase in workforce readiness and more students getting real, hands-on experience. That falls under one of Grow NKY’s five pillars, College and Career Readiness, and is where Tim Hanner’s NaviGo College and Career Prep (a division of Covington-based Children, Inc.) comes into play.

Hanner, the founder and senior director of NaviGo, developed a curriculum to help students find their “interests and passions or talents and then help them connect to what that means beyond high school,” he said.

NaviGo works with the private sector, Northern Kentucky Cooperative for Educational Services, mentors and educators to help all high school students but especially those ones who “are just doing school” and are not engaged, Hanner said.

The approach proves that workforce development is not just a formulaic event that forgoes the innate passions and talents of each student or the traits of each school; it’s more about engagement. NaviGo helps train educators to engage with students and therefore unlock their potential and help them face their future more effectively. 

“When you really drill down and go beneath it and talk to the kids, it’s really about helping every student figure out who they are and what makes them tick, what they’re passionate about,” Hanner said. “That only happens if it’s intentional. We’re training folks on how to engage in more project-based learning and opening doors and having business in schools in more ways beyond just participating in a career day. I think we’re scratching the surface of where we’ll be two to three years from now.”

Another big part of the push to better prepare high schoolers is the Ignite Institute at Roebling Innovation Center. The all-new public high school in Erlanger is situated on Toyota’s former Quality & Production Engineering Laboratory facility and will open in August 2019. The company donated the facility to the school, which will focus on project-based learning in science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics, with real industry-case methodology, honing passion and direction for careers.

Another new development comes from Bill Butler of Covington-based Corporex.

Butler, who in 2005 helped start the Covington-based Life Learning Center, is getting even more hands on with his time and his wallet – lending support to the seven school districts along the Southbank through a grant that brings the NaviGo program to high school kids. The Butler Foundation grant allows teachers and staff to receive coaching and learn skills to better engage with students and help them stay on track to college or trade school once they graduate. And business is brought in like never before.

“We’re looking to bring every high school in Northern Kentucky to have a seat at the table along with businesses and industry and along with higher education, but then drilling it down by workforce sector,” Hanner said. “Especially in the top five areas of needs. And we’ve identified healthcare, IT, logistics, supply chain, construction and skilled trade, and advanced manufacturing as the high need areas. The end result we want out of this is to provide more opportunities for youth while they’re in high school so they can discover, get their hands on, do more job shadowing experiences, more exploratory experience, partnering with businesses and agencies, more apprenticeships, and working to define what apprenticeships mean for us in Northern Kentucky.”

The end results mean higher success rates, but also more meaningful connections.

Unemployment ‘basically at zero’

The Northern Kentucky Chamber hopes such educational practices will also help keep talent in the region. NKY Chamber Vice President of Public Affairs and Communications Kristin Baldwin hopes businesses and community leaders can help carry the torch once students are ready to go.

“NKU does a great job of graduating 3,000 students annually, but what are we doing to keep them here?” she asked. “Now we’re carrying the torch, so what does that look like? We’ve been working on many initiatives; for example NKU, University of Kentucky and St. Elizabeth Healthcare have all come together to do a combined doctorate program to get more physicians in the area after St. Elizabeth identified a big problem of shortage of healthcare providers in the region.”

It’s not only healthcare. Cooper said the region is “basically at zero unemployment” and so many sectors are truly thriving.

“This year we were able to boast the lowest unemployment rate and highest worker participation rate in the commonwealth,” Cooper said. “At the same time we are trying to get people who are sitting on the sidelines back into the workforce. We are also trying to bring people into the region to immediately fill job opportunities. College grads and young professionals for sure, but also those with certificates and expertise in trade fields. We need doctors and engineers, and we need construction workers and electricians. If you are looking for work, come to Northern Kentucky. We welcome you with open arms.”

It’s not something leaders are sitting idly on. Finan cited Grow NKY’s success. The comprehensive workforce strategy has “tremendous private sector support and expectations,” she said. “Multiple organizations are working together to provide necessary resources and strategies to move the needle on successful talent attraction.”

Top quality of place

Part of attracting talent is not about jobs, but about the livability and quality of place in Northern Kentucky.

With a vibrant international airport, a scenic landscape and rivers, unlimited food and drink experiences, ability to get around quickly, diverse living options, and a sense of small-town living next door to a world class urban landscape make Northern Kentucky a place people want to be.

“A unique problem to us is that people don’t know we are here,” said Cooper, adding that the chamber is being very intentional about recruiting young professionals. “We offer a terrific place to live with a high quality of life and low cost of living. We need more people to come and see for themselves what we have to offer. That is why we continue to champion and promote tourism in Northern Kentucky, as well as the entire state. For example, did you know we are 10 percent of the state’s population, but represent 20 percent of the state’s tourism?”

Part of the tourism and livability appeal is the “cool factor” of Northern Kentucky, which New Riff Distilling owner and founder Ken Lewis likes to tout.

“Newport, Campbell County and Northern Kentucky are most definitely on the rise,” Lewis said, adding that the uptick in bourbon production has become a major tourism draw but also a quality of life addition – giving people new places to convene and experience new things. “Being a stop on the Kentucky Craft Bourbon Trail adds to the quality of life on our side of the Ohio River and brings a uniqueness to our area.”

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail also dubbed Northern Kentucky as the official northern entrance to the trail, and the region even has its own take on it with the “B-Line.”

“With the ‘B-Line’ our region’s collective approach including distilleries, bars and restaurants focused on Bourbon, we are driving tourism to Northern Kentucky and marketing the area as a transportation hub to begin or end out of state tourists visit to Kentucky,” Lewis said, adding that he loves that Northern Kentucky has “such a positive, ‘can-do’, ‘make it happen’, collective approach to continue driving this region forward from government, business, and tourism leaders.”

He thinks bourbon can continue to drive forward the push to attract more people.

“We bring some of that hard-to-quantify quality of life and uniqueness that adds to the pride and the economic growth of the whole region,” Lewis said. “It’s not just the dollars from tourism but pride in our community and what we are accomplishing together.”

Attractions such as the B-Line are just one of many reasons that REDI Cincinnati President & CEO Kimm Lauterbach likes to talk about Northern Kentucky.

“Northern Kentucky has small-town feel with charm, creativity, and connectivity,” she said.

REDI Cincinnati represents a 15-county portion of Southwest Ohio, Northern Kentucky and Southeast Indiana.

“This region is blessed for a host of reasons,” Lauterbach said. “We are geographically blessed. You can get almost anywhere that you’d want to do business within a one-day drive or a 90-minute flight. That makes it easy for us to sell proximity to customers, and to supply chains. In addition, we have a low cost of living. Other places offer great location, but they’re more expensive. We’re around 15 percent more affordable than the national average and have almost a 30 percent lower cost of living than the coasts. But we provide a great community experience, and Northern Kentucky is a large part of that experience.”

She added that she loves the way Cincinnati and the whole region embraces new people and ideas and “collectively roll up our sleeves and get to work.”

Bridges – actual ones – together

Rolling up their sleeves together is something regional leaders – on both sides of the river – embrace.

“As much as we have to celebrate, there are challenges,” noted Cooper. “We need ongoing infrastructure improvements like roads, water, sewer, etc. We need to address health issues that are impacting our workforce like the opioid epidemic and our high smoking rate.”

The elephant in the room for infrastructure projects is the aging Brent Spence Bridge that carries north-south traffic for interstates 71 and 75 across the Ohio River. Local leaders already have worked with state and federal officials to establish an east-west corridor to bypass some of the traffic on the overworked bridge to other available bridges. Northern Kentucky’s roads received a major shot in the arm in June 2018 in the form of a $67.5 million INFRA grant awarded to the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet (KYTC) for I-71/I-75 interchange improvements in Boone County. According to a KYTC press release the total future estimated cost of the project is $150.9 million. In addition to the INFRA grant, a combination of traditional state and federal funds, as well as local Boone County Fiscal Court funds and private funds, will pay for the remainder of the project.

“We worked for years to get it,”said Baldwin, adding that it will focus primarily on roads and logistics.

While this project will help alleviate congestion around the bridge, Baldwin and others anticipate that money to fix the Brent Spence Bridge will also come from a combination of public and private sources.

“When we talked about the bridge 10 years ago, we just expected the feds to pay for it all, but that’s not happening,” Baldwin said. “Now it’s partnerships with federal, state, local and private money.”

And air transportation has been a huge success for Northern Kentucky. Finan touted the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG) as a prime example of what can happen when leaders put their collective heads together for the good of the region; the result being lower airfare, increased traffic with both people and cargo, and huge increases in activity from Amazon Prime and DHL.

In August 2018 CVG announced it also received $7.1 million in Airport Improvement Program grants. The program funds airport infrastructure projects such as runways, taxiways, airport signage, airport lighting and airport markings.

Transportation and logistics are one of the many reasons that companies continue to invest. A huge example came in June 2018 as Coca-Cola Bottling Co. Consolidated announced a $30 million investment in Erlanger. Coca-Cola plans to create 430 full-time jobs for a new 300,000-s.f. sales and distribution facility expected to be open in late summer 2019.

And just one month later – only nine months after its opening – Cincinnati-based Kroger announced it would invest nearly $18 million and add 250 jobs at its distribution center in Florence. The facility will support Kroger’s e-commerce and digital services.

“We have many success stories we can point to; transportation being a good example,” Finan said.“Our future must envision NKY unity and centralization. It’s time to move forward for the next 30 years; to compete on a national and international basis on all fronts. A regional approach to workforce, education, economic development and health are key to NKY’s transformation.”

Continued transformation will be highly visible soon as Corporex in 2018 announced it plans to move forward with its highly anticipated Ovation complex on Newport’s waterfront. The announcement came after FC Cincinnati announced plans to develop a stadium in Cincinnati’s West End. Originally the Ovation site in Newport was identified as one of three potential stadium sites. Even with the stadium now going on the north side of the river, Northern Kentucky businesses are amped about adding yet another professional sports team literally within sight of the Southbank urban core.

Ovation is an innovative, transformational project from Butler, who is already known for two others like it in Covington at RiverCenter and The Ascent. Ovation, though, will be even bigger. It represents Northern Kentucky’s impressive push into the future.

Horizon Community Funds of Northern Kentucky

50 E. RiverCenter Blvd.,

Suite 431

Covington, KY 41011

(859) 757-1552

horizonfunds.org

Horizon Community Funds of Northern Kentucky is a qualified public charitable 501(c)(3) organization established as a community foundation in 2017 by Northern Kentucky leaders. Its mission is to unite resources to raise the quality of life for all people in the Northern Kentucky community. President Nancy Grayson leads the organization, working collaboratively with other leaders to serve the community’s needs.

Transformative education

In October 2018, Northern Kentucky University dedicated its all-new $105 million Health Innovation Center. The state-of-the-art technology and learning hub, including the St. Elizabeth Healthcare Simulation Center, make the HIC one of the largest and most comprehensive health professions buildings in the country. 

“The Health Innovation Center transforms how we educate and train the next generation of health care professionals with an interdisciplinary approach to addressing our population health challenges. I see it as the nexus of talent, innovation and community development,” said President Vaidya at the dedication. “A project of this scope doesn’t happen with one institution. It takes everyone making a commitment to improve education and health outcomes in the region. We are incredibly grateful for the commitment from our state legislature, St. Elizabeth Healthcare, local leaders and other community partners.”

The $105 million project is home to NKU’s College of Health Professions and the Institute for Health Innovation. The Kentucky General Assembly allocated $97 million toward the construction of the HIC.

Giving innovation an accelerated leg up

Northern Kentucky’s business scene is chock full of steadfast companies who inject millions into the local economy. But the region also is rapidly gaining fame as an ideal startup atmosphere.

At the tail end of 2018, the NKY Entrepreneurship Council (NKYEC), which is operated by the Northern Kentucky Tri-County Economic Development Corp., received a $750,000 grant to emphasize entrepreneurship and innovation in Northern Kentucky’s economic development. KY Innovation’s RISE program awarded the new funds, and the NKYEC plans to match the grant with local dollars to drive greater results for the region.

The NKYEC looks to establish an innovation cluster in Northern Kentucky, which includes Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties. The focus will be on informatics, health innovation and logistics innovation– centers of excellence in the region. Northern Kentucky University (NKU) will leverage its expertise from the College of Informatics and the Institute of Health Innovation to support the council’s focus areas. Once established, the innovation cluster will serve as a resource for the entire state and the broader region.

“We are thrilled that Northern Kentucky has brought so many great partners to the table to develop a strong, entrepreneurship-based innovation cluster focused on informatics, health innovation and logistics innovation,” said Brian Mefford, executive director of the Office of Entrepreneurship at the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development. “This is exactly the kind of collaboration we were aiming for when developing this new investment approach.”

Northern Kentucky has already proven that it is ripe for a further injection into the innovation space. Entities like UpTech and Kentucky Innovation Network in Covington’s “Innovation Alley” already work with startups, sometimes coupling up with organizations like St. Elizabeth Healthcare and NKU. Cintrifuse in Cincinnati is a fast-growing innovation hub that is bringing new high tech jobs, attracting more talent, invigorating the entire region and connecting “dreamers and disruptors.”

“We have a terrific ecosystem of new business startups and entrepreneurs. The efforts of many groups including the NKY Innovation network, Aviatra Accelerators, Cintrifuse, and NKU’s Small Business Development Center (SBDC), just to name a few,” said Brent Cooper, president and CEO of the NKY Chamber. “The new jobs and investments from startups in Northern Kentucky has been profound, and impacts the entire state.”

Northern Kentucky also has a major presence in the research and life sciences sector. Covington-based CTI Clinical Trial and Consulting Services moved its offices to the south bank from Blue Ash, Ohio, in 2016 and in May 2018 it announced it will collaborate with DiscGenics on the execution of a first-in-human trial of IDCT for degenerative disc disease (DDD). DiscGenics is a regenerative medicine company focused on developing cell therapies that alleviate pain and restore function in patients with degenerative diseases of the spine. CTI, an expert in regenerative medicine and in the development of life-changing therapies in critically ill patients, has been a part of several dozen First-In-Human trials over the past few years.

CTI is less than a mile from Bexion Pharmaceutical, a biopharmaceutical company developing innovative cures for cancer.

 

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