News: Art As Development

Covington looks to artists for urban renewal

Kathie Hickey, renaissance Covington, Inc

The city of Covington is trying to make it easier for artists to mix paint, wedge clay, practice scales, choreograph dances, craft dialogue for the stage or string together paragraphs for a chapter in a novel.

Plans are underway for the development of a new arts district, the Artisan's Enterprise Center. A clearinghouse for information for and about local artists, the space will also include a gallery, workshop area and meeting rooms. (For an early report on the arts district plans, see "The Art of Urban Pioneering," issue of Aug. 30, 2006.)

The center, located in a gritty part of a decaying urban community, will help connect artists with unconventional buy/rehab loans to renovate cheap warehouses and other run-down buildings to create spaces where they can work and live. To draw artists to the area, local government has already designated the qualifying neighborhoods, prepared the zoning and is organizing a host of other services to help make this artist relocation program a success.

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Need a place to host a workshop or an opening exhibition? Cost-free space is available.

"The reason Covington is willing to do this, to go to this measure, is to serve the artists," says Mary Lyons, the "some-day-will-be" Covington Arts District manager (her title hasn't been decided yet). "It's all about bringing artists here, keeping artists here and helping the artist to prosper here ... because art takes our life to a higher level, to a higher plane, that makes it more enjoyable."

Lyons hopes to be working in her new office at the center by the end of September, but that depends on the progress of renovation at 25 W. Seventh St., the site of the old Northern Kentucky Variety store. A developer has been chosen and construction is due to begin soon.

Making art a priority
In developing an arts district, Covington followed the National Main Street Program, according to Kathie Hickey, manager of Renaissance Covington Inc. She says organizers used four basic principles to guide their planning — design, organization, promotion and economic restructuring — and the process yielded some interesting results.

"There's been no real umbrella organization or physical plant to oversee all the arts and cultural activities in Covington to provide a unifying physical location," she says. "If we're doing this arts district, it would be great to have a center where all the artists can come, where all the information will flow through. It'll be like a single point of contact."

The center is meant to serve both artists and the community, but first it needs the artists. While some have already moved to Covington, a concerted effort is being made to attract a larger number of artists.

For that, Hickey traveled to Paducah, Ky., to learn more about its Artists Relocation Program (, which has attracted 70 new families from Hawaii, Maryland, New York and Washington.

"(Lowertown) was a very blighted part of the community," Hickey says. "There was a lot of drug activity starting to go on there, prostitution — it was like the forbidden area. This one artist located there; he loved it. He looked out his window and saw one crack deal too many, and he got mad. He went downtown and said, 'This should be done, and that should be done,' and they said, 'OK, let's do it.' So they all sat down together and made a plan for the greater good and came up with a wonderful plan.

"Paducah's proven it — what (arts) can do for a community. We're closely following their advice, though we're making our own way in some areas, too. We've got very different cities, different cultures. We've got to recognize those differences and plan around those and include those. You can't just cookie-cutter something like this."

An unusual public/private partnership was formed to bring the Artisan's Center to life. The architectural firm of Kinzelman, Kline and Gossman (KKG) will own the building housing the center, but more than half of the first floor will be rent-free, public space for at least 20 years. A $450,000 grant from the Kentucky General Assembly, being used to help finish out the space, makes the public area a requirement. The Cincinnati office of KKG will move into the remainder of the first floor.

"We have been working with the city of Covington for the past three years on a variety of projects, not the least of which is helping create the artists' district," says Craig Gossman, a principal at KKG.

The opportunity to purchase and share a building in the community they are helping to build was too good to pass up, according to Gossman.

"We were kind of tired of renting," he says.

The Covington model
To Hickey's surprise, the public side of the endeavor, Covington city government, has been an asset, she says. When she talked to the artists and business people in Paducah, they told her government was essential to success.

"Private sector guides so much, but government guides the direction of development in the community," Hickey says. "They can support it or not, and it's much better if they support it and everybody works together."

Hickey, a city employee, is head of the Renaissance Covington non-profit development entity started by the city to head up the revitalization of the downtown area.

"We have had tremendous support from our local and state and federal officials," she says. "You never go to them and ask for anything unless you've done your homework. You know what you're talking about, and you know you've got a broad base of support for doing it. If you plan well, you're going to get their support."

The center has already attracted interest from out of town. Organizers for the National Main Street Program's conference in Seattle earlier this year wanted participants to hear what Covington is up to.

"Washington, D.C., called me asking me for details on this project," Hickey says. "It was featured in the opening session — quite a compliment. Then I got a call from a lady in San Diego after the conference. She says, 'We've got an empty building in our downtown. We've been wondering what to do with it.

"So San Diego is wanting to duplicate what Covington's doing. How about that?" ©