Home » Finding NKY’s regional voice: Initiative aims to unite region, capitalize on its strengths, drive community progress

Finding NKY’s regional voice: Initiative aims to unite region, capitalize on its strengths, drive community progress

By Lorie Hailey

There’s a lot to love about Northern Kentucky. Small-town charm, big city amenities, collaborative leadership, competitive cost of living, and an educated workforce are just a few of the high points. 

One of the region’s biggest assets is a unified mission to drive the community forward. And NKY has two things that many regions cannot boast: a group of CEOs from some of its biggest employers working together on initiatives to achieve that mission and an award-winning economic development company working to bring new businesses to the region, grow existing industries and support efforts to expand the talents of the local workforce.

OneNKY Alliance aims to transform the community with a variety of bold initiatives that connect the community and help drive it forward. Its board of directors is comprised of CEOs who channel their passion for the region – and their combined business expertise – to focus on a variety of regional initiatives that generate tangible results.

“When we formed in 2017 as Northern Kentucky Regional Alliance, there was a keen focus on regionalism and a focus on improvements in areas of health, education, job growth and community vibrancy – all being pulled together by a regional approach,” said Karen Finan, president and CEO of the organization.

Improving the region by joining forces – “finding our voice,” they say – is the driving force behind OneNKY Alliance’s initiatives and its successes.

“I am truly energized by the Alliance and the CEOs that make up its governance,” said Bill Butler, chairman of Corporex Companies and board member of the Alliance. Butler has devoted much of his life to philanthropic efforts in the region. “As a group, we are committed to bold ideas for progress.”

The organization adopted the name OneNKY Alliance to promote unity and to reflect its efforts on behalf of all of the communities in the Northern Kentucky region. 

“OneNKY is special because it is a true community of people and businesses that are on a journey to make this a vibrant place to live and especially to grow, in all dimensions,” Butler said. “OneNKY is a supportive culture, a supportive community that is now 400,000 strong.”

OneNKY refers to so much more than an organization or a name, Finan said. It’s a movement.

The vision for OneNKY is rooted in unity, said David Spaulding, vice president and general manager of Turner Construction in Cincinnati and a member of OneNKY Alliance’s board of directors. NKY’s growth organizations were making significant strides on their own, he said, but they realized they would be stronger if they worked together. 

“Harnessing our energy and focusing our efforts in key/targeted initiatives will help transform the future of Northern Kentucky,” Spaulding said. 

Kay Geiger, regional president of PNC of Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky and former chair of the Alliance board, said the importance of OneNKY as the movement accelerates “holds great excitement for the region.”

“Our community benefits as we further develop shared governance, a larger voice, a healthy and educated community,” Geiger said. “I am excited for the future of NKY and the bold goals that will shape our outlook.”

Creating results, not programs

Garren Colvin, chairman of the OneNKY Alliance board of directors, got involved in the organization at the ground floor. He had a vested interest, he said: his love for Northern Kentucky. 

“I was born in Northern Kentucky, raised in Northern Kentucky, went to college – undergrad and graduate school – in Northern Kentucky and I’ve worked for the most part in Northern Kentucky my entire life,” Colvin said. “I’m dedicated to this community.”

Colvin is CEO of St. Elizabeth Healthcare, the major health care provider in NKY and one of the largest employers in the three counties.

“When you have a group of CEOs coming together that want to make the place you love a better place, it’s hard not to sign up,” he said. 

OneNKY Alliance is focused on results, not on creating new programs. The organization is solutions- and results-oriented, Finan said, and the board is playing the long game, not looking for quick fixes. The Alliance has implemented a variety of regional initiatives, including OneNKY Frankfort, a signature facility within walking distance to the Kentucky Capitol, allowing for community voice; and a OneNKY headquarters, a planned facility in Covington.

The Frankfort house is a strategic advocacy center, a branded location where sponsoring organizations and businesses can convene, strategize and provide collective impact. The facility is a physical reminder of NKY in the state’s capital, offering a consistent presence and a unified voice on issues important to NKY leaders, businesses and residents.

Because NKY plays a big role in Kentucky’s economy, Kenton County Judge-Executive Kris Knochelmann said, sometimes the unique needs of the region are not noticed. NKY has a lot of strengths – collaborative governments, good-paying jobs, high quality of life among them – but that does not mean there are not challenges that state legislators could help address, he said. 

The OneNKY Frankfort facility’s proximity to the Capitol is a good reminder of that. And, “it is something to make our legislators proud when they drive up the main street to the Capitol,” Colvin said. “They have a little piece of Northern Kentucky that they’re driving by every day.”

The future headquarters building in Covington will house multiple growth organizations responsible for future economic growth, all under one roof. By sharing resources and costs and collaborating on growth initiatives, these groups will be able to build regional efficiencies and centralized strategies, Finan said. OneNKY Alliance is working with member company Corporex and the Catalytic Development Fund to develop the concept and bring it to fruition. 

The signature OneNKY headquarters will be located near The Ascent at Roebling’s Bridge, the iconic blue-and-white riverfront residential building with a spiral-sloped roof. The headquarters’ design style will complement The Ascent. OneNKY Alliance hopes to break ground on the headquarters in 2021 and expects construction of the 33,600-s.f. facility to take about 18 months, Finan said.

“This facility will be a focal point for comprehensive economic development support, which ultimately will help drive our community forward,” Spaulding said. 

It is more than a physical structure, Finan said. It represents shared services, aligned strategies, and will be a message of strength and significance to the greater region. Even without co-location, one of the Alliance’s strategies – shared services across multiple organizations – is already being explored and utilized, she said. Several growth organizations have come together to share financial and business services, for example.

“We’ve been able to identify efficiencies so that when we are in that building together, it’s a seamless approach to how we conduct business and avoid duplications,” Finan explained.

OneNKY Alliance’s other goals are centered on education, job growth and health. It supports programs that work to produce a highly skilled workforce and grow local talent to meet the job demands of tomorrow. The Alliance also advocates for a healthier NKY. 

The end goal: A healthy, vibrant community with a growth-oriented regional economy driven by educational excellence, social mobility and a united view of the future. The Alliance aims to foster a community that drives strategic change through action, recognizes the need for transformation and demands results.

Alliance works to ‘Get a Voice’

The Alliance’s “Get a Voice” project is designed to communicate its message within the region and at the state level. It must elevate the region in the minds of its partners, its legislators “… and the world for that matter,” Butler said. 

It starts with the NKY community. 

“We have to get a voice. How do we create awareness? How do we elevate the community? How do we move things forward so that if you live in Boone County, for example, you understand the importance of Bellevue, Newport and Covington?” Finan said. “Having one voice is understanding why, if you live in Covington, that you should care about Amazon. Generating that type of thought process is something that will drive the community forward.”   

More can be accomplished with a shared mission and one voice, Colvin said. To make that happen requires educating the public and elected leaders. 

“We have some great elected leaders throughout Northern Kentucky and I think they listen to their constituents. So if we had enough of a groundswell to tell our leaders what we believe in, then they would feel that they have the support to make some tougher decisions (on the region’s behalf),” Colvin said.

The region’s ability to change and grow is “restricted by our fragmented governing structure, which limits our recognition, and political and economic influence relative to our big city peer to the north and also within the state of Kentucky,” said David Drees, CEO of Drees Homes and a member of the Alliance’s board. “The OneNKY Alliance was formed with the intent of improving our regional brand recognition and strengthening our political influence by speaking as one.” 

OneNKY Alliance promotes the importance of unity through quarterly summits, outreach to community organizations and educational institutions and works with other groups that seek to capitalize on the region’s strengths in order to continue to get better. 

One of those allies is Northern Kentucky Tri-County Economic Development (Tri-ED), which markets and promotes NKY on a national and international basis as a desirable location for new or expanding businesses, and helps existing local companies expand operations and grow their customer bases. It blends public and private funds to enhance the business climate and foster regional cooperation among Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties.

Since its founding in 1987, Tri-ED has led the successful relocation or expansion efforts for more than 717 business projects, representing more than 69,000 primary industry jobs created with a capital investment of more than $8.7 billion. 

Economic growth despite COVID-19

Though many industry sectors struggled with the challenges presented by the global pandemic, NKY Tri-ED nearly met its 2020 recruitment and retention goals. In a year mired with uncertainty and once-inconceivable difficulties, that’s something that many economic development companies can’t boast – and it’s definitely not something Tri-ED takes lightly.

“It was certainly a trying year,” said Lee Crume, president and CEO of Tri-ED. “We went from trying to understand what was coming, dealing with the uncertainty of COVID-19, and then trying to figure out what our mission was as we moved through it and how we were going to help companies.”

Tri-ED had its bruises in 2020, but it was a surprisingly good year, he said, and that was directly related to the great business climate and quality of life in NKY and Greater Cincinnati.

NKY started 2020 off strong with several new office headquarters announcements. When the pandemic made its way to Kentucky, Tri-ED partnered with the NKY Chamber of Commerce to serve the business community and provide information about the CARES Act. It also worked with the chamber and Horizon Community Funds through the NKY Restaurant Relief program.

In June, Tri-ED launched a series of CEO roundtable conversations to hear from the region’s business leaders about opportunities and challenges for the region. Crume and Kimberly Rossetti, vice president of economic development, spoke with more than 20 NKY business leaders from a variety of industry sectors to gain an understanding of how COVID-19  affected their operations, workforce and projections for 2020 revenues, growth and recovery. They also discussed diversity and inclusion within their companies and the region.

“The conversations revealed that primary industry company leaders are cautiously optimistic about recovery, and the majority of them have maintained full employment and most are hiring,” Crume said.

Many of NKY’s key industries – food and flavoring, IT, logistics and transportation, and health innovation – have fared well during the pandemic and are still looking to grow.

New investments in the region continued. Twenty-seven companies from a diverse array of industries created new jobs and invested in the region in 2020, Tri-ED said. 

Twelve of the new projects were related to advanced manufacturing; nine were headquarters and office related; four were tech firms; and two were related to distribution and logistics. Nearly 1,600 jobs were created with an average yearly wage of almost $72,500. 

“We believe the future is bright in Northern Kentucky and we believe strongly in the Tri-ED team leading our economic development efforts,” said Bob Heil, chair of the NKY Tri-ED board of directors and CEO of KLH Engineers.

Among the developments:

• Tri-ED worked with IT Supply Solutions, a homegrown Northern Kentucky business, to secure state support for its nearly $1.9 million expansion. The company serves the business and education community by restoring computers and responsibly recycling (R2) hardware and equipment. The expansion will allow the Independence company to add 15 new employees and continue growing.

Protective Life Corp. in December 2020 announced its plan to relocate its regional office from Cincinnati to Covington, a $17.2 million investment. It will lease and retrofit 67,000 s.f. in Technology Tower I of RiverCenter. The office, expected to open in summer 2021, will be a core site to support Protective Life’s business nationally. The initial move will bring approximately 100 well-paying jobs to Kentucky.

• Technology engineering firm STEP CG announced its expansion after an extensive search for a new headquarters location throughout the Midwest. STEP CG invested $5.3 million in a new headquarters in RiverCenter and committed to create 83 new, high-wage jobs. The company opened its innovation center in summer 2020, despite the pandemic. Tri-ED worked with STEP CG through its business retention and expansion outreach program.

Camco Chemical Co., a supply chain services company providing turnkey chemical contract manufacturing, warehousing and fulfillment services, completed an internal capacity expansion of its facility in Independence in February 2020 that expanded capacity of its liquid blending and bottling operation. Camco also opened a new 100,000-s.f. warehouse in Florence in July, which allowed the company to open up more space at its existing facility to install three additional packaging lines. 

• Gravity Diagnostics in Covington began preparing for COVID-19 and the possibility of coronavirus tests from its CLIA-certified lab in January 2020. The lab’s testing method was approved by the FDA on March 16. Its operations grew significantly throughout 2020 to over 200 team members and provided more than 1 million testing results, with turnaround times of 24 to 48 hours. 

CTI (Clinical Trial and Consulting Services), a full-service contract research organization (CRO) with global headquarters in Covington, is managing more than 20 active COVID-19 trials for treatment and prevention, including a Phase III trial for COVID-19 treatment and a Phase III vaccine trial.  

• Tri-ED worked with Bonfiglioli North America, a manufacturer of gearmotors and power transmissions, to support the company’s decision to nearly double its operations with a $5.2 million investment and add 75 jobs in unincorporated Boone County. Bonfiglioli opened its 75,000-s.f. manufacturing space expansion at its North American headquarters in March 2020.

Gentis Solutions, a new-to-market provider of human resources solutions to high-growth companies, announced it would move to Covington in February 2020. Tri-ED began working with Gentis early in its decision-making process as it evaluated locations throughout the Cincinnati region. The company invested $2.7 million in its new headquarters in RiverCenter, opening its office in June, and committed to hiring 80 new employees. 

• A long-term investor in NKY, Fidelity Investments announced it would add 550 jobs at its regional center in Covington in 2020. Through Tri-ED’s CEO Roundtable outreach, local Fidelity leaders shared their insights on the impact of COVID-19 on business and projections for recovery. Fidelity has consistently grown its presence, community involvement and investment in the region since opening the Covington campus in 1992, where it currently employs 4,500.

Dollar General is opening a new, 630,000-s.f. distribution center in Walton to serve 800 of its stores. Tri-ED worked with the city and the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development to bring the $65 million investment and 250 jobs to Boone County. 

At the end of 2020, Tri-ED had surpassed the $200 million capital investments goal it set in January by over 34%, Crume said. 

Moving forward, Tri-ED will focus on its strategies for growth while also looking at ways to balance NKY’s development activity. The region has an enormous amount of logistics and distribution action, for example, especially around the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Regional Airport (CVG), where the Amazon Air Hub is being constructed.

“But we also want to make sure that we have space in our community for the next round of companies like Mubea, Bosch and CTI … so we’re trying to make sure we have places for all types of companies,” Crume said. 

With NKY’s tremendous assets – its strategic location, talented workforce, good infrastructure and a low cost of business – interest in the region will no doubt continue. 

When you boil it all down, the two P’s are what attract businesses and residents to Northern Kentucky, said Kenton County Judge-Executive Kris Knochelmann. 

“Proximity and people. The two P’s,” he said. “We’ve got the proximity to the downtown area, proximity to the airport, proximity to all the benefits of living in a metropolitan area. And then you’ve also got people with a great work ethic and a great knowledge base. Our people are smart, they’re trained, they’re educated. Those are all key factors.”

“The Northern Kentucky region is a great place to live, work and play,” agreed Drees, a homebuilder and OneNKY Alliance member. “We enjoy the friendly, convenient, easy lifestyle found in a small town, along with access to jobs, education, entertainment, culture and transportation opportunities found in the biggest cities.”


About Northern Kentucky: Northern Kentucky has it all. Quaint downtowns bustling with development. Prominent universities and a successful community college system. Historic neighborhoods and a booming residential real estate market. Global logistics expertise that is driving growth and bringing more high-paying jobs. Quick access to the best regional airport in North America. Four major league sports teams and successful high school sports programs that bring the community together. Innovative entrepreneurs and a supportive business community. Exciting riverfront development. Multiple arts and culture venues. A cost of living below the national average.

Comprised of Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties, Northern Kentucky is one of the largest urban areas in Kentucky, with about 394,000 residents. It is a thriving manufacturing center and a leader in logistics, finance and technology. It has walkability, world-class restaurants, live music and a variety of craft breweries and bourbon distilleries. It also has an active suburban community with great schools and shopping destinations. And it’s all just across the river from downtown Cincinnati, “America’s Queen City.”


Economic development strong despite pandemic

In 2020, Northern Kentucky communities battled COVID-19 and celebrated some promising economic development achievements.

In Covington, more than $80 million in private investments and over 1,400 jobs were announced, including the headquarters for M&M Service Station Equipment Specialist, Hilltop Basic Resources, Rumpke Waste and Recycling, First Financial Bancorp, Gentis Solutions and STEP CG.

Also underway: a $7 million transformation of a long-vacant shopping center into a modern workspace, led by computer firms ReGadget and Blair Technology Group; a $22.5 million plan to turn the former YMCA and Gateway Bookstore buildings into an addition to Hotel Covington, office space and a bourbon experience; and the $4.9 million renovation of the Republic Bank Building into office space.

The city is also working on its plans for the 23-acre downtown site once occupied by the IRS. After demolition, the city will restore the street grid, extend utilities to the site, install sidewalks, and build fiber and WiFi infrastructure.

In Florence, development projects were on par with previous years, according to Mayor Diane Whalen.

“While the hospitality industry has suffered, Florence’s hotels have fared well and are averaging 60 to 70% occupancy. More so, we are still seeing interest in the development of new hotels within the city,” she said.

Some future developments include the Drury Hotel, Hilton Garden Inn, a Tesla Super Charging Station, Farmview Apartments and Arlington Luxury Apartments, located on Houston Road next to Turfway Park racetrack, Whalen said. Growth in the job market has also led to residential growth, she added.

The Ovation project in Newport is an exciting development for Campbell County, said Judge-Executive Steven Pendery, as is the NKU Gateway project, a pedestrian-scaled, $100 million mixed-use “town center” style district being developed at the campus gateway. The site is expected to feature new restaurants, retail space, apartments, a hotel, structured parking and public gathering spaces.

Transportation projects in Boone County are opening up more land for development, said Judge-Executive Gary Moore. A new double-crossover diamond interchange at Graves Road and Interstate 275 opened in late 2020. The project improves mobility and safety in a rapidly growing area in northern Boone County.

The updates will improve congestion related to growth at CVG Airport and nearby associated facilities.

“It will also open up more than 2,000 acres of new land for future growth and development,” Moore said. Another double-crossover diamond interchange will replace the existing interchange at Richwood Road and I-75/I-71, part of a $60 million project to improve safety and provide better connections to a growing number of businesses in the area. Completion is expected in 2022.

The Boone County Fiscal Court in December 2020 approved a zoning amendment that opened up a 274-acre area near CVG to be developed as an industrial park, Moore said. The zone change was requested by Paul Hemmer Companies, which will develop the park. It will include 3 million s.f. of proposed buildings.