Count us in: Northern Kentucky’s unyielding quest to carve out a unique regional identity

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This story originally appeared in the Sept. 29 edition of the Weekly LINK Reader. To see these stories first, subscribe here.

Northern Kentucky wants an identity of its own. 

But how does a region forge a distinct identity and vision when it is considered part of a major metropolitan area of a city in an adjacent state? 

Northern Kentucky is a place that has three counties and 36 cities without a single point, boundary or label on a map with its namesake. Is it fair to regard the river cities and surrounding counties as suburbs of Cincinnati? 

Or are we something more? For economic development company BE NKY’s Lee Crume, that answer is “yes.” But, the CEO said, one of the hardest things about Northern Kentucky is figuring out what that identity is. 

“When you start thinking about brand and identity, what’s the iconic image of the community?” Crume asked. “Is it the Florence Y’alls water tower? Is it the Roebling Bridge? Is it the horse farms?” 

For meetNKY CEO Julie Kirkpatrick, the path for Northern Kentucky to establish itself as something more is to create an identity distinct from Cincinnati and the Bourbon Trail while still being an integral part of each. 

Identifying NKY’s identity: Where are we? 

“Northern Kentucky is the economic engine for Kentucky,” Kirkpatrick said. “And that is a true statement.”

RiverCenter in Covington. Photo by Eric Willoughby | LINK nky contributor

Kirkpatrick may be one of our region’s most enthusiastic cheerleaders in her role at meetNKY, Northern Kentucky’s tourism and convention services bureau. Her role is to represent and market the region as both a standalone travel destination and a must-visit destination within Greater Cincinnati, the state of Kentucky and the Bourbon Trail. 

“To say we’re the southern side of Cincinnati doesn’t say a lot about who we are as a place,” Kirkpatrick said. “The fact that you can’t point to us on a map is the reason our organization has been so consistent over the last two years working with national media to tell our travel story and why you should check it out as part of the Cincinnati region.” 

That consistent message promoting Northern Kentucky destinations has led to some major wins for Kirkpatrick and her team, including a New York Times story with a focus on the bourbon industry in Northern Kentucky and a Condé Nast list that included Northern Kentucky/Cincinnati as a must-visit place for 2023. Kirkpatrick said those articles likely would have just highlighted Cincinnati without meetNKY’s efforts to outline specific attractions south of the river. 

“Visitors to the region become potential talent to invite to move here,” Kirkpatrick said. “Our vision is to live in a place that turns out the best-educated students who are in love with where they live and will want to stay here, make a difference and become advocates for why other people should move here.”

MeetNKY team will be one of the local growth organizations to take up residence at the region’s new OneNKY Center. The groundbreaking for the new facility took place in late August, kicking off construction of a building at the foot of the Roebling Bridge, a historic landmark that directly connects the Covington riverfront with downtown Cincinnati.

The OneNKY Alliance board at the OneNKY groundbreaking in August. Photo provided | Tom Uhlman

“I think it’s so exciting that we will all be in the same building together as I work closely with these organizations,” Kirkpatrick said. “We will be able to run into each other in the hallway, share ideas and then keep going.”

Other organizations slated to occupy the building include OneNKY Alliance, Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, BE NKY Growth Partnership, The Catalytic Fund of Northern Kentucky, Horizon Community Funds of Northern Kentucky and the Northern Kentucky Bar Association. 

In addition, the Covington Life Science Partnership and Covington Life Science Lab will occupy about 15,000 square feet of the 45,000-square-foot building, said Karen Finan, president and CEO of OneNKY Alliance.     

Northern Kentucky has a legacy of local leaders coming together to foster a regional consciousness through deliberate cooperation that may have had a history of differing interests and values, Finan told LINK nky. The benefits of coming together as a region are often aimed at fostering political clout one might typically expect with the kind of economic clout Northern Kentucky has in abundance.  

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How did we get here? 

Finan and OneNKY Alliance are currently leading efforts to call on business and civic leaders to define the strategic vision for the future of the region. Those efforts can be traced back to the work of an organization called Forward Quest, led by Corporex Chairman Bill Butler and Mike Hammonds, Forward Quest’s former executive director. That organization came out of a 1981 task force to look at Northern Kentucky’s future. 

A photo of the plan for the region’s future that came out of the Economic Development Task Force in 1981. Photo provided.

With help from dozens of volunteers, the organization published the “Quest: A Vision for Northern Kentucky” plan in 1996, a 40-page document that sought to identify inefficiencies across the 36 municipalities and three counties that comprise Northern Kentucky to address issues associated with siloed local governments. The work Forward Quest conducted helped form the basis of other future-oriented strategic planning under the names of Vision 2015, later Skyward, and now OneNKY Alliance.

Forward Quest and Vision 2015’s early work sought to highlight inefficiencies that result from too many small municipalities throughout the region, duplication of roles and departments, as well as the cost to administer services to small pieces of an overall population that was predicted to grow rapidly. But adding another layer of regional government hardly seems to be a solution to the issue of too many local governments.

“We hear people complain about too many governments in our counties, but then the responses are often workarounds that create new governments atop the existing governments and make it more complex and difficult,” Covington Mayor Joe Meyer said. “One of the big problems that we have here is that we have no government in Northern Kentucky that’s responsible for the big picture.”

Meyer said NKY’s city governments have very broad general responsibilities within their jurisdictions. 

“Counties and state-run special districts generally have a more limited focus, so who do you go to for issues related to affordable housing for the region, for example,” he said. “The reality is that no such regional institution exists.” 

Further, Meyer said he sees a tendency for leaders in the region outside of Covington to assume the city of Covington can solve social issues such as affordable housing for the entire region.

A photo of the Quest: A Vision for Northern Kentucky booklet from 1995. Photo provided

“We have been doing way more than our share for a long time,” Meyer said. “The simple fact is that Covington can’t do all that for this entire region, and the reality is there are more people in need of social services in Kenton County outside of Covington than inside Covington, and more people in need in Boone County than Covington. Yes, we are welcoming here, but the region collectively is not meeting the needs of the people by pushing all these services into Covington.”  

Meyer said he believes that for regionalism to work for Northern Kentucky, it should have institutional responsibility for the big picture and include a way to resolve inevitable conflicts.  

“I’m very much for regionalism, and I believe Northern Kentucky would be so much better off if they developed a true vision of regionalism that was institutional, not personality- or interest-driven,” Meyer said. “It has to be responsible for the entire region, have regional funding sources and a conflict resolution-mechanism built in.”

The regionalism conversation goes back decades, as evidenced in a 2005 series in the Kentucky Post that talks about Vision 2015 and the region’s vision for itself. 

A photo of a Kentucky Post article from 2005 about Vision 2015. Photo provided.

“What’s the right number of cities?” then-Forward Quest Executive Director Hammonds asked in one of the stories. “Do we need 37, or could we function better with 10 cities? I think we’d be better off in the neighborhood of seven to 10.” 

There is also a history of conflicting values between residents in Covington and some of the more urban neighborhoods along the river from the rest of the region, even with all of Covington’s recent economic growth.

“We are not comfortable with the idea of regional entities imposing their vision on Covington, but we’re perfectly willing to cooperate with regional motion so long as our vision and values and interests are respected,” Meyer said. “We very much believe that our uniqueness, our history and social attitudes are what make us unique, and those attributes aren’t shared with much of the rest of Northern Kentucky.”

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Meyer said Covington’s commitment to historic preservation, social justice and a value of diversity make it an appealing place for citizens and visitors alike. It’s a vision that’s not always shared with neighbors in the region, he said.  

Fernando Figueroa, Gateway Community and Technical College president and CEO, told LINK nky he believes a regional ethos and identity can be adopted while maintaining local pride in one’s city or neighborhood. Gateway, which has campuses in Florence, Erlanger and Covington, serves a student population that lives throughout Northern Kentucky.

“If you think about a city like New York, you can have your different boroughs and different zones in terms of governance. But I think what’s missing is whether our cities can see themselves as all fitting under one overall set of values that gets them really thinking and talking with one another rather than being in competition,” Figueroa said. “Historically, looking at the story of Northern Kentucky and where it’s been, there has been this interesting dynamic or balance between being very focused on local neighborhoods and ZIP codes, cities and the history of those cities with this idea of regionalism and that we are stronger when we pull together.”

Other cities, Figueroa said, that have pulled together on regional strategies have done so in response to tragedy, such as Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Figueroa’s hometown, or Hurricane Hugo in Charleston, South Carolina. But he said Northern Kentucky’s narrative does not have to follow suit; NKY’s collective desire to forge an identity and define who it is as a region makes it unique.

“Northern Kentucky no longer wants to be taken for granted or live in the shadow of Cincinnati or Kentucky,” Figueroa said. “We have two of the largest world hubs (with Amazon and DHL) through CVG with two of the largest companies on the planet. We are international.”

In 2006, the now-shuttered Kentucky Post published a special section to cover the work Vision 2015 outlined for stakeholders. The special section included the revitalization of the urban core and education as initiatives to improve Northern Kentucky for residents and businesses alike. This came only a few months after Delta announced that CVG would no longer serve as a hub for the airline, taking away jobs from the region and reducing the number of flights to and from the airport by more than 20%. 

Kirkpatrick remembers this time well.

“It was a bitter wince when CVG was de-hubbed from Delta,” Kirkpatrick said. “A lot of people might have said, ‘OK, well we’re just going to be a good Midwest airport,’ but that’s not the Northern Kentucky ethos. CVG leadership came back and said, ‘We’re going to be the No. 1 airport in the three-state area.’”

That kind of determination and unfettered optimism is what Kirkpatrick thinks makes Northern Kentucky unique, and what led CVG leadership to secure an agreement with British Airways, providing direct flights between CVG and London’s Heathrow airport. Flights between the two airports began in June 2023 and led to another win for Kirkpatrick and her team: an international spotlight on Northern Kentucky and Greater Cincinnati as a travel destination in The London Times. 

According to the airport’s website, CVG is now the only airport in Kentucky, Ohio or Indiana to offer direct flights to the United Kingdom, and passenger traffic has fully rebounded from its Delta hub heyday. 

Kirkpatrick cited the cooperation between CVG leaders and other leaders throughout the region during the arduous decision process with British Airways. Some critics considered the effort a waste of time, she said, but they were wrong. 

We have come so far as a region, Kirkpatrick said, since leaders started envisioning our future with Quest Vision back at the end of the 20th century. 

What does that say about our vibe in Northern Kentucky? Kirkpatrick said it best: 

“Just when you think you can count us out is when you better count us in.”  

What’s next? 

Northern Kentucky-centric nonprofits and regional development organizations are bringing the community into their conversations about the next iteration of the region’s comprehensive development plans.

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Economic development agency BE NKY held an investors summit for Northern Kentucky officials, industry leaders and elected representatives on Sept. 6 to talk about how the region can remain economically competitive with other similarly sized areas in the country. 

Leaders are considering a multitude of strategies, including courting more technology-focused companies, increasing quality-of-life investments in sectors such as recreation and public transportation, and constructing more workforce housing.

With a bevy of individuals and organizations that have a stake in the region’s future, all options and voices should be considered, Crume said. 

“Is BE NKY committed to leading the effort to drafting a comprehensive regional development plan?” Crume asked. “I would say we’re committed to being a leader, and I say that because we have a lot of strong partners and this is not the kind of thing that one entity is going to own.” 

Crume said BE NKY is focused specifically on the economic development portion of the plan, because other organizations have more expertise dealing with issues outside of that purview. 

The region’s comprehensive strategies have evolved over time. 

Moving away from an economic development strategy that revolves around business attraction, or “elephant hunting,” is key, said Ernst & Young Economic Development Advisor Amy Holloway at the Sept. 6 meeting. 

“Go out in the biggest investment you can, and then that’s a win,” was the area’s previous strategy, Holloway said.  

And while that strategy has proved successful in the past – most notably in the logistics sector – the increased development has also led to issues. 

Northern Kentucky is now dealing with a housing shortage, facing a demographic drought among the primary working-age population, and figuring out how to handle a talent shortage in construction and trade labor jobs, Crume said. Each of these issues presents a unique set of challenges for regional leaders.

“We’re not doing the same mission we did 40 years ago, 30 years ago, 20 years ago or even 10 years ago,” Crume said.

Going forward, recruiting companies will still be part of the plan – it just won’t be the primary focus. Regional leaders can afford to be more selective, not only because of past economic progress but also scarcity of resources.

“I think today we’re moving into this era of scarce resources, with the workforce being at the top of that list,” Crume said. 

By 2034, older adults will outnumber children for the first time in U.S. history, according to a demographic drought report that consulting firm Lightcast conducted between 2011 and 2021. Consequently, many regions in the country saw their working-age population decrease during that 10-year period. The country’s over-65 population grew by 16.1 million during that time, while the under-25 population shrank by 2 million.

Because of this, Crume said, Northern Kentucky leaders must be intentional about educational curriculum and the types of jobs brought into the area.

“In our world, really good available sites and lands and buildings are also a scarce resource,” Crume said. 

Rather than focusing on people going out and getting any job, he said, the focus should be on helping the community go out and get jobs that are going to best fuel the community. What jobs will pay good wages, be good investments and align with the vision of what the community wants to be? 

 Another thing BE NKY and other local agencies should address, Crume said, is the decreasing supply of developable land. After decades of building on empty farmland, the supply is starting to run short, and strategies such as urban adaptive reuse have been floated as a solution.

Regardless of the challenges, the conversations behind the scenes – and in public – are commencing. Right now, Crume said, leaders, growth organizations and residents alike should all be part of creating a plan that leads to a desirable, sustainable community that works for everyone. 

“What are the things that we’re going to execute on?” Crume asked. “What are the things that we’re going to measure against to be successful?”

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