Home » COVER STORY: Reinventing Northern Kentucky’s riverfront real estate

COVER STORY: Reinventing Northern Kentucky’s riverfront real estate

Once-in-a-lifetime projects adding to region’s already robust economy

By Greg Paeth

Ovation is a $1 billion mixed-use development that will cover nearly five city blocks at the confluence of the Ohio and Licking rivers in Newport.

For Northern Kentucky, the timing seems to be perfect.

Nearly 16 years after Covington-based developer Corporex paid $13 million for almost 14 acres at the confluence of the Ohio and Licking rivers in Newport, what could be a billion-dollar development project kicked into high gear in December 2020. The $40 million PromoWest Pavilion at Ovation concert venue was finished.

RELATED: NKY real estate sector bolstered by small-town charm, urban allure

The pavilion was just the first phase of the $1 billion Ovation project, a 25-acre, urban mixed-use development covering nearly five city blocks. Now the second and third phases are underway: construction of an office building, a hotel and a parking garage for future residential units and retail spaces, as well as the third phase presale of and preparation for construction of 88 boardwalk residences that began this spring.

Once completed, Ovation will include more than 1,000 residential units; 500,000 s.f. of office space; 524 hotel rooms; 150,000 s.f. of retail and entertainment space; the indoor/outdoor concert venue; a spa; a membership club and more.

And it will transform the Newport riverfront.

Less than two miles away, the City of Covington is embarking on its own once-in-a-lifetime, riverfront revitalization project: converting 23 acres of downtown property that once housed a low “flat top” IRS tax-return processing center into a completely reimagined riverfront neighborhood.

In early 2022, the city hired O’Rourke Demolition for $1.3 million to tear down the former IRS building, located just a few blocks from the heart of the downtown business district. Much of that property on Fourth Street is visible from the hotel, office and residential high-rises along the Ohio River shoreline where Corporex began building in 1988.

As might be expected, Covington has some great expectations about how a developer might use that tract, a unique opportunity to restore the street grid and redevelop prime riverfront real estate.

Ovation among many exciting Newport projects

Newport City Manager Tom Fromme described Ovation and its billion-dollar price tag as one of the most significant in the city’s long history. Newport is supporting the project by approving $800 million in bonds that will trim costs for Corporex.

Ovation will also have a freestanding, state-of-the-art health and wellness club with a full-service spa, group exercise classes, a heated elevated pool and more.

But Ovation isn’t the only exciting development in town, Fromme said.

“We’ve got enough going on to keep us busy for the next 10 years,” said Fromme, a Newport native and former police chief who has been city manager since 2005—a long tenure in a job that can be a political minefield. (He’s also an encyclopedia of Newport history and trivia.)

Ovation is adjacent to Newport on the Levee, the 21-year-old shopping and entertainment complex that overlooks the Ohio River. Said to attract more than 4.5 million visitors each year, it includes the famous Purple People Bridge that connects Newport to Cincinnati. In addition to restaurants and retail spaces, the Levee is home to Newport Aquarium, a popular tourist destination, and a 20-screen AMC theater complex.

North American Properties purchased the riverside recreational development in 2018 and began a $100 million makeover slated for completion in late 2022.

A long list of new tenants have moved in or will soon as the renovation nears conclusion. New names at the Levee include Amador, a Cuban restaurant and rum bar; Wooden Cask Brewing; clothing store Native; and Pizzazz, described as an upscale resale shop.

One project not on the riverfront is a home show that’s significant because builders on both sides of the Ohio are involved. In October 2022, Home Builders Association of Greater Cincinnati and Building Industry Association of Northern Kentucky, working together for the first time, will unveil CiTiRAMA in the Martin’s Gate Community on a steep hill that overlooks Newport and the Cincinnati skyline.

The show will feature 18 homes with prices that start at $850,000 and 40 townhomes from $580,000 to $680,000. The Cincinnati builders’ organization has never held a home show in Kentucky before, the association said.

“Newport is booming,” Fromme said. “We are seeing development throughout the city. From riverfront commons to the shopping center to historic renovations, Newport overall is thriving.”

The city has approved a bond issue of about $10 million for two infrastructure projects, Fromme said, including a major overhaul of Monmouth Street/U.S. 27, the primary artery that links the downtown business district to smaller cities in Campbell County to the south and Cincinnati to the north.

Expected to cost $7-$8 million, the road project will extend from 11th Street to the city boundary with Southgate. Part of the project focuses on flood control; other elements include underground utilities along with street and sidewalk improvements.

The city also will invest about $2.5 million in Festival Park near the river.

“We are also very excited about the U.S. 27 Smart Corridor and Riverfront Commons—the 11.5-mile walking/biking/hiking path along the Ohio River that is a partnership between Southbank Partners and Northern Kentucky’s river cities and counties,” Fromme said.

A hotel group is also planning a new facility near the World Peace Bell site in Newport, which the state recently designated as a tax-increment financing (TIF) district, the city manager said.

NKY leads state in employment growth

While Ovation, the IRS site and other developments certainly provide a shot of adrenaline for the region, shovels in the ground don’t tell the whole story about the region’s recent evolution.

Following a $20 million investment, ZEISS Vision Care opened its new U.S. headquarters, optical laboratory and 2,500 s.f. showroom with a ribbon-cutting ceremony in July 2021.

The new $1.5 billion Amazon Air hub at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG) is Amazon’s largest hub in the country. On one level it might play a key role in delivery of a new set of Apple AirPods to your front door before you can type in the expiration date of your credit card. But the development also adds thousands of jobs to the region’s workforce, and Amazon’s investment here only strengthens the region’s status as a logistics powerhouse.

Other sectors are seeing tremendous growth, too, including information technology, advanced manufacturing and life sciences.

In Covington, three biotech firms are waiting to see if state legislators approve the governor’s budget suggestion of $10 million for a research and development life science lab led by Bexion Pharmaceuticals, Gravity Diagnostics and CTI Clinical Trial & Consulting Services.
The availability of that lab could help attract other life science companies to the region, said former Covington Mayor Chuck Scheper, the retired COO of the $20 billion Great American Financial Resources in Cincinnati. Scheper, who is a cancer survivor, chairs the board for Bexion, a company that is committed to creating life-changing cancer treatments.

Gravity Diagnostics, a state-of-the-art lab in Covington that provides a variety of testing services, has grown astronomically as an important provider of COVID-19 testing in Kentucky and Indiana. CTI, which has worked on more than 40 COVID-related projects, has about 400 employees at its headquarters at RiverCenter Towers.

NKY has established itself as an economic engine in Kentucky. While the state as a whole lost more than 42,000 jobs from 2015 to the end of 2020, Northern Kentucky created more than 11,000 jobs during that period, said Lee Crume, president/CEO of Northern Kentucky Tri-County Economic Development Corp. (Tri-ED). Tri-ED markets and promotes the three-county region as a desirable location for new and expanding businesses.

Expansions and new manufacturing locations drove regional job growth in 2021. Twenty-seven announced projects created 1,851 jobs paying an average wage of $54,482 with a capital investment of $255 million. Over 50% of the investments were made by manufacturing companies.
“Diversey was a big one for us. They’re new to the community and they’re moving into a building in Elsmere,” said Crume, referring to a 98 year-old South Carolina company that makes cleaning and hygiene supplies and is expected to create 300 jobs.

Gov. Andy Beshear, right, joined Fidelity Investments leaders, including Kevin Canafax, vice president of regional public affairs, in celebrating the company’s plans to hire 600 more workers at its Covington campus.

He lauded the decision by Zeiss Vision Care to move its U.S. headquarters from San Diego to Hebron, where it has 400 employees. The company recently completed a $20 million upgrade of its optical lab, which has been operating since 2001. Zeiss is renowned for its lenses for eyeglasses, binoculars, cameras and microscopes, and for equipment that makes semiconductors. Based in Oberkochen, Germany, Zeiss was founded in 1846.

“We have a real reason to be optimistic in Northern Kentucky … We have very low unemployment. We have a very high labor participation rate, which is outstanding,” Crume said. “And we have good population growth. It’s a bullish story for sure.”

Collaboration leads to vitality in the region

Those high-dollar projects and scores of others provide plenty of evidence that there is a growing sense of unity, coordination and accomplishment in the region, according to Karen Finan, president/CEO of OneNKY Alliance, a five-year-old organization known as the Northern Kentucky Regional Alliance until November of 2020. It seeks to unite the region’s growth organizations and members of the community to build a healthy, vibrant community.

“There’s a recognition that Northern Kentucky is a major contributor to the economic vitality and vibrancy of the Greater Cincinnati region and the commonwealth,” said Finan, who points out Northern Kentucky represents about one-fifth of a metropolitan area of roughly 2.1 million.

“In a lot of ways, we have finally found our voice. We’re present in Frankfort. Our growth organizations are working very closely together … making sure we’re not overlapping and our leaders are in constant contact with each other,” she said.

Although she’s enthusiastic about the explosive growth of the transportation, logistics and distribution sectors near CVG, Finan said the region also is attracting jobs that require different levels of sophistication.

There is “a different level of jobs that are available over the past two years,” she said. “We’re not just talking about distribution anymore. We’re talking about e-commerce, and that puts a whole different spin on who we are in Northern Kentucky.”

E-commerce routinely requires a strong internet presence, automation of process on the distribution floor and robust transportation flow, all of which create jobs that require a skill set in technology, supply chain and back-office operations, Finan said.

In partnership with community leaders, the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce is focused on three imperatives to help make the region a place “where everyone can come with new ideas, grow and thrive,” said President Brent Cooper. Those strategies include growing, attracting and retaining world-class talent; uniting the region to advocate for an improved economy; and building an inclusive business community.

NKY Chamber and its community counterparts—Tri-ED, OneNKY, meetNKY and others—are working together to develop a robust regional talent attraction and retention strategy, create work-based learning opportunities, develop work-ready adults and address transportation and child care challenges.

Business leaders optimistic about future

Fromme, Crume and Finan aren’t alone in their excitement about the success of NKY’s business sectors.

Robert Hoffer, managing partner of DBL Law, is optimistic about NKY’s economy and DBL Law’s decision to spend $11.3 million on the historic Monarch Building and move back to Covington after nearly 40 years in nearby Crestview Hills.

“We moved out of Covington in ’83 and three weeks ago we moved back in,” Hoffer said when interviewed in January. “When we left here, there were not a lot of positive things happening in Covington.”

DBL had six lawyers in 1983 and four people on the support staff. Five of those 10 people returned to Covington with the firm, which now has 51 attorneys and a support staff of about 55 in offices in Covington, Cincinnati and Louisville.

“We are thrilled to be back,” he said. “It’s everything we hoped it would be. We’re energized—all of our staff and everyone is really, really glad we made the decision. And the local community in Covington has really been great in reaching out to us.”

The firm hired an office-location consultant and talked to a long list of people in the region before making the decision to move back, Hoffer said. The consultant clearly favored moving to the “urban core” as a way to ensure the firm could attract and retain top talent now and 20 years in the future. Covington has become popular for younger professionals.

“We feel like we’re different; a different kind of law firm that’s cutting-edge,” he said.

The City of Covington will replace the former IRS data processing facility with a completely reimagined neighborhood on 23 acres of riverfront property.

Jeanne Schroer, president and CEO of the Northern Kentucky Catalytic Fund, works on development projects in the older urban areas that have lost jobs, population and property values in recent years.

Schroer is enthusiastic about the Catalytic Fund’s plans for the Burton Building, which represents the fund’s first investment in Dayton in Campbell County.

“It’s an important building that had been vacant for many years and located at a real important corner in Dayton. It’s a historic building, and for years the city has been really focused on trying to attract development there, but site control had been an issue,” said Schroer, who will work on the project with Orleans Development, a Covington firm with a thick portfolio of rehab projects in the region.

The 138-year-old building, which once housed city offices, will have commercial space at street level and 10 apartments on the upper floors.
The project has a relatively small price tag—about $1.8 million—for the Catalytic Fund. Over the last nine years, the fund has played a role in 66 projects in Ludlow, Covington, Newport and Bellevue that are valued at about $375 million, Schroer said.

Schroer said her organization’s residential projects may have had an indirect influence on an insurance company’s decision last year to sign a long-term lease at RiverCenter Towers in Covington.

The impact of the residential projects “is what we really originally hoped would happen … that those investments would start to draw jobs back to Northern Kentucky. It’s interesting to note that during the pandemic, when everyone thought no one will ever go to an office, RiverCenter (Covington’s largest riverfront building) got leased up to 100% occupancy,” she said.

Protective Life Corp., based in Birmingham, Ala., announced plans last year to lease 67,000 s.f. at RiverCenter. The company said it would spend $18.3 million on the lease and to retrofit space for 90 employees. Protective Life expects to create 255 new jobs within six years.
“RiverCenter Towers in Covington stood out to us as a ‘mini-campus,’ with many amenities that would advance the employee experience,” said John Whitcomb, senior vice president of Protective Life Corp.

While Schroer and the Catalytic Fund focus on commercial and residential projects in the region’s northernmost river cities, Southbank Partners is linking the same six cities together with a quality-of-life project that includes construction of an 11.5-mile walking and bike path hugging the Ohio River shoreline.

The Riverfront Commons trail between Ludlow on the west and Fort Thomas on the east is far from finished. But substantial progress has been made in Newport, where the path is woven into Ovation and Newport on the Levee. An abandoned L&N Railroad bridge, now known as the Purple People Bridge and managed by Southbank Partners, is an important element of the Riverfront Commons project. That rehabbed structure now provides a footpath between and Cincinnati.

When completed, Riverfront Commons will seamlessly connect via the Purple People Bridge to trails in Cincinnati, the Licking River Greenway in Northern Kentucky, and Devou Park in Covington.

“Northern Kentucky’s river cities are more than the ‘front door’ to our commonwealth. These urban communities share a long rich history as well as a booming vitality that is attracting new business, investment, residents and visitors to a vibrant and connected region,” said Will Weber, president of Southbank Partners. “By linking our cities, we tell an unapologetic story of an uncommon region blended by old souls and new ideas, fueled by small businesses with big impacts, and celebrating with award-winning spirits and traditional dishes to create an experience and identity uniquely us.”

Portions of the $6.54 million “crown jewel” of Riverfront Commons were completed in 2021. Covington Plaza is a 2.7-mile development next to the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge that includes a 1,350-seat amphitheater; two concrete paths totaling 2,800 feet; a cobblestone pier for paddlers and anglers; and upgraded overlooks. The “stage” area of the amphitheater’s unique backdrop: the Cincinnati skyline.

The City of Covington is constructing Phase 3 of its portion of Riverfront Commons that will create an approximate 1.5-mile continuous connection from Covington Plaza to the western part of the city along the river, Weber said. The City of Dayton recently approved plans for construction of Phase 2 of its portion of the project, which will continue work on a three-mile loop along the Ohio River and the mixed-use Manhattan Harbour development, he said.

Newport is finalizing its plans for Newport Festival Park, which will include a quarter-mile section of Riverfront Commons along the Ohio River near the Purple People Bridge, Newport on the Levee and the Newport Aquarium, Weber said. In Bellevue, officials are finalizing plans for the city’s first phase portion of the project, a quarter-mile section connecting Port Bellevue to Fairfield Avenue along the river.

Southbank Partners was formed 25 years ago to help the NKY river cities (Ludlow, Covington, Newport, Bellevue, Dayton, Fort Thomas and Silver Grove) through the promotion and coordination of economic development activities. In addition to Riverfront Commons, Southbank is developing the U.S. 27 Smart Corridor, a six-mile stretch of NKY where partnering communities are leveraging technology to implement strategic smart solutions in the areas of public safety, transportation and sustainability for economic development efforts.

Newport, Fort Thomas, Southgate and Highland Heights are participating in the project, Weber said.

An abandoned L&N Railroad bridge, now known as the Purple People Bridge, is an important element of the Riverfront Commons project and a big tourist attraction in NKY. Photo by RedFly Media & Newport Southbank Bridge Company

NKY tourism on the rebound

After more than two years of coping with the pandemic and its challenges, Julie Kirkpatrick said she’s bracing for strong results this year at meetNKY, the region’s convention and visitors bureau where she is president and CEO.

“Peoples’ perceptions are that this (the pandemic) is never going away. We’ve got to get on with it. The yearn to move and travel has never been stronger. The intent is even higher than it was pre-pandemic,” Kirkpatrick said.

The Cincinnati Reds and the Bengals, the Ark Encounter in Williamstown (about 40 miles south of Covington) and a variety of bourbon-related attractions draw thousands of visitors every year, Kirkpatrick said.

“We really started to see that leisure segment recover nicely in 2021. What we’re really waiting to see is the business travelers get back on the road,” she said.

Although the convention business is not yet back to pre-COVID levels, Kirkpatrick said she’s expecting “… more of a recovery this year and looking forward to what we think will be a good year.”

Kirkpatrick’s office in Covington is just a short walk from the 10-story building that once housed Kenton County government offices, Covington offices and the county jail. The building has been stripped down to its steel superstructure so work can begin on a $31 million apartment project called The Hayden, which will feature 133 residences and 6,000 s.f. of ground-level commercial space.

“The dramatic changes proposed for this building mirror the evolution of its uses over many years,” said Covington Mayor Joe Meyer. “What was built as a joint city-county government center more than 50 years ago, and even housed prisoners for much of its life, is set to become the proud home to hundreds of people and to become another iconic addition to the Roebling Point area.”

Covington has enjoyed an exciting period of economic development growth.

In 2020, Covington announced the pending creation of 2,100 jobs and private capital investment of $85.6 million, including an array of national and regional headquarters. That momentum continued in 2021, with the creation of an additional 1,641 jobs and $57.5 million in capital investment, city officials said.

Recognizing the need for skilled construction laborers in the region, Covington moved forward in 2021 with plans to “skill up” residents with two new trades programs, through a partnership with the Enzweiler Building Institute. The first is a formal school that will focus on teaching mainstream trades, such as carpentry, welding, electricity, HVAC, plumbing. The second, which initially will be taught in a workshop format, will focus on srestoration trades, specialized skills needed to work on historic buildings, a much-needed skill in NKY, where several cities have large historic districts.

The city and its administration also got positive news in 2021 that didn’t involve bricks, mortar and new jobs.

The Kentucky League of Cities, which has 370 members and a history that dates to 1927, recognized Covington with its City Government of the Year award in 2021.

Life sciences industry thrives in NKY

With a strong base of chemical, plastics and metal manufacturing and a large health care industry, Northern Kentucky is the optimal location for life science companies to develop and move their product to market. Add to this a rapidly developing specialization in health informatics and research outcomes, which has attracted the attention of entrepreneurs and medical innovators from across the globe. 

When the
COVID-19 pandemic struck the U.S. in early 2020,
Gravity Diagnostics began processing coronavirus
tests from its CLIA-certified lab in Covington.

Employment growth in the NKY life sciences industry doubled from 2015 to 2020, according to a recent target industry analysis by EY that identified life sciences as one of four target clusters for NKY
Tri-ED’s future economic development efforts. Continued growth in the industry will create high-wage job opportunities for homegrown talent that might otherwise commute out of the region,. 

The life sciences cluster encompasses a variety of individual sectors, including pharmaceuticals development and production, medical device manufacturing, medical and diagnostic laboratories, and scientific research.

NKY’s life sciences cluster features several major companies, including:

• ABB Labs

• Beckman Coulter

• Bexion Pharmaceuticals

• Celanese

• CTI Clinical Trial & Consulting

• Ethos Laboratories

• Gravity Diagnostics

• HealthWarehouse.com

• PPD Global Central Labs

• Thermo Fisher Scientific

• ViaCord

• Wood Hudson Cancer Research

• Zeiss Vision Care

• Zotefoams

Residential, mixed-use developments hot in all river cities

One Highland, a mixed-use luxury condominium development being constructed in the heart of historic Fort Thomas, will feature nearly 13,000 s.f. of street-level retail/office space and 18 single-level, luxury condominiums.

The smaller river cities of NKY have big developments in the works. Here’s a look at some of them.

Bellevue: Construction has begun on a $35 million, urban-style, single-family home development, The Reserve at Bellevue. Many of the 74 homes will have “breathtaking Cincinnati skyline views,” said the developer, Neyer Properties.

Dayton: Construction has begun on the latest phase of Manhattan Harbour, a $50 million luxury condo development along the Ohio River. The project will eventually include 98 units across seven buildings. Phase 2 of Dayton’s Riverfront Commons project is also underway. When completed, there will be a three-mile trail loop along the river.

Fort Thomas: The One Highland mixed-use development—at the corner of Highland and North Fort Thomas avenues—is expected to celebrate its grand opening in April 2022. The three-level building will enhance Fort Thomas’ downtown urban environment, providing 13,000 s.f. of commercial space on the street level with 18 luxury condominiums above. It also has a 40-space underground parking garage.

Ludlow: The city recently rebranded itself as being “The Perfect Mix of Quaint & Quirk.” To help meet the demand for residential real estate there, a 65-acre residential development called Cityview Station by Fischer Homes is planned. It includes 28 single-family homes, 306 condos and 300 apartments.


998 Monmouth Street
Newport, KY 41071
(859) 292-3666

The river city of Newport, home to more than 16,000 residents, is conveniently located and easy to navigate. The community’s riverfront area provides a striking view of the Cincinnati skyline and is host to premier attractions.

City Manager Tom Fromme said: “Now is the time we reignite our optimism and look both back and forward at our accomplishments and goals. Our priority is on serving our community in building vibrant neighborhoods, meaningful places, and healthy and safe communities; while knowing we need economic prosperity, resilience and environmental stewardship to survive.”

Click here to read more articles from Market Review of Northern Kentucky 2022-2023.