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Historic signs once again can light up the night

COVINGTON, Ky. — When restauranteur Bill Whitlow opened Rich’s Proper Food and Drink on Madison Avenue in 2018, an old neon sign anchored to the building represented a large but fading remnant of the bygone era when businesses lit up downtown Covington’s nightlife.

Whitlow wanted to recreate that scene, so he did. He piecemealed the work to restore the sign, using businesses and craftspeople on both sides of the river who could address its multiple restoration needs.

The results were … well … both illuminating and tangible.

“Our business probably went up 20 percent the second we put that sign up,” Whitlow said. “It was so recognizable, and we saw an immediate impact the next day.”

The City took notice.

To replicate Rich’s impact and help other Covington businesses breathe life into vintage signs, the City’s Economic Development Department has created the Historic Electric Signage Program, a forgivable loan in the City’s commercial areas.

The new incentive becomes the third in Covington’s award-winning Small Business Incentive Program, which already helps new businesses with first-year rent and helps commercial property owners improve their buildings’ facades.

Signs point to success

Covington Economic Development Director Tom West had long suspected that Covington’s many historic electric signs held the potential to enhance downtown’s nighttime aesthetic and spur business. Rich’s Proper’s black, yellow and white sign, while restored long before the new incentive, was proof that such signage lends itself to a vibrant business district and helps businesses improve their curb appeal.

“Whether it’s neon, incandescent, or LED lighting on signs, they bring an electricity (pun intended) to the streetscape at night,” West said. “The older signs are authentic reminders of our past and the revitalization of those lighted elements speaks to the vibrant future we are building.”

Covington is, after all, as the Economic Development Department’s new manifesto states, “…where the past meets progress.”

How it works

The maximum forgivable loan per property for the Historic Electric Signage Program is $7,500. The loan will reimburse the investment made by the building owner on a 3-to-1 basis up to $10,000 in total project cost.

Applications are reviewed quarterly, and applicants must meet with the City’s Historic Preservation Specialist to discuss the project before applying. Those rules apply regardless of whether the building is in a Historic Preservation Overlay District.

Eligible items include:

  • Mounting hardware.
  • Sign installation.
  • Sign refurbishment (including wiring and neon or related lighting fixtures).
  • Rehabilitation or upgrading of electrical and structural attachment to the building.

The deadline for the first round of Small Business Incentive’s Historic Electric Signage Program – as with the rent subsidy and façade incentives – is July 29. Applicants for the sign incentive must meet with the City’s Preservation Specialist by July 15.

The applications and guidelines for the three incentives can be found at Historic Electric SignsRent Subsidy, and Façade Improvements.

Among historic electric signs and clocks in the city are those in front of Landwehr Hardware & Toys, the former Covington Chili, the recently relocated Sims Furniture, the old theater on Southern Avenue in Latonia, and the clocks/signs at 3631 Decoursey Ave.

But that’s not an exhaustive list.

As West sees it, the vintage signs are further evidence of Covington’s unique and historic nature.

“Regardless of whether the sign is completely restored to feature the business name it originally advertised or modified to feature a new tenant, this new program seeks to capitalize on the night impact of something our suburban neighbors can only try to imitate, and that’s history,” West said.

$150K, amended guidelines

The 2022-23 Fiscal Year budget approved Tuesday night includes $150,000 for the Small Business Program, with maximum awards of $6,000 for both first-year rent subsidies and exterior improvements. Last autumn, the program won a top award from the International Economic Development Council, the world’s largest council of development professionals.

The creation of the new electric sign incentive was recently approved by the Covington Board of Commissioners during the annual updating of guidelines for the overall program.

Among the minor changes:

  • Language in the rent subsidy program was amended to tighten the focus on “new” businesses, rather than “existing,” to honor its intention as a recruitment tool.
  • Two changes were made in the façade improvement guidelines in response to challenges with the national supply chain and labor supply: the allowable construction completion timeline was extended from six months to 12, and businesses can seek reimbursement for materials purchased before an agreement with the City is executed.

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