Northern Kentucky State College held its grand ribbon cutting in 1968, with residents lining US 27 to support the new institution.
The small Northern Kentucky town of Highland Heights had seized the moment, with the state college located next to the city’s borders.
Now-Highland Heights mayor Gregory Meyers had a vision, though, to seize the momentum of the university’s presence.
For 40 years, NKU was not officially a part of Highland Heights. The acreage that NKU occupies was actually farmland at the time of its groundbreaking and was not incorporated into the city, although it used the Highland Heights address, Meyers said.
In 2008, under the leadership of Meyers and NKU President James Vortruba, the university was part of a friendly annexation, which expanded the area of Highland Heights to include NKU.
“I think back today if we were to just seize the momentum at that time [in 1968] and brought the university into the city, think of where we’d be today,” Meyers said. “We’ve done such tremendous work here in such little time.”
At a time when Meyers said Highland Heights was losing revenue and had some depletion of businesses, the partnership allowed the city to flourish and also offered great benefits for the university.
Meyers said he knew NKU wanted to see a thriving community: one that impressed students and parents alike when they came to tour Northern Kentucky to tour. For college students, there was interest in being surrounded by a city that offered places to eat good food, hang out or have a part-time job, Meyer said.
Over a few years, the community saw areas of US 27, also known as Alexandria Pike, go from being what the mayor called an eyesore with “nothing but a couple houses and a lot of weeds growing up,” to 34 present businesses.
Many of those businesses thrive off the college and family-oriented community Highland Heights offers, said Meyers.
One of those businesses is La Ru Bowling Center, a bowling alley on Alexandria Pike where owners Kati and John Manning hope to make NKU students feel welcome. The Mannings purchased the bowling alley in 2021.
As an NKU alum, Kati Manning said she understands the value of having entertainment right in the heart of the city, which has inspired her vision for a college night.
“Our next bet is to do a college night on, like, Wednesdays and maybe do a pies and pints night and karaoke,” Kati said.
The Mannings said they want university students to feel at home at La Ru Lanes. Live music happens every Friday, and college bands are welcome to come play. NKU’s club bowling team frequents the alley, and the Chase College of Law even has its own league.
Meyers said a partnership between the university and Highland Heights allows for many discussions about developing businesses and what would best benefit the community. Meyers and Eric Gentry, vice president for University Advancement, both said they recognize NKU’s presence offers great incentive for many businesses to make their home in Highland Heights.
“Honestly I don’t know if some of these businesses would have come to Highland Heights had it not been for the university,” Meyers said.
There can be challenges with operations geared toward younger demographics coming into the city, especially as the summer approaches, the mayor said.
Highland Heights claims a population of over 7,000, Meyers said, which also includes NKU housing residents who fill out the census claiming Highland Heights as their residency. Many of these students leave at the end of the semester, so the number of people in the city goes down in the summer.
Every restaurant can feel the impact of having fewer students in the summer months, but it doesn’t make for a huge difference in operational income, Meyers said.
A smaller city size ensures safety, however, which Gentry said is a huge point of interest for both parties in the partnership.
“This is a safe campus because it’s a safe town that we live in,” said Gentry. “That is one of our huge pluses and that we get recognized nationally for, and that really is a partnership between the city and the university.”
While Highland Heights may be running out of room for an influx of new businesses, the mayor said that the city will continue redeveloping what space it has. He said he has hopes for “maybe someday” seeing development of Nunn Drive and US 27, a project that has aimed to create a gathering place with restaurants and a hotel for several years.
“Highland Heights has been on a substantial growth pattern since the partnership with Northern Kentucky University,” Meyers said. “Now you bring a family in that looks at Highland Heights and says, ‘Wow, it’s a thriving community. I want my children to go here.’”