Ten stories we'll be following in 2021

How small businesses will survive and recover

As 2021 begins, the Covid-19 pandemic is still raging, and experts predict it will be months before enough people are vaccinated so it may be safe enough for small businesses to return to something resembling normalcy. That means months more, at least, of pivoting, adapting, and getting creative in order to stay viable and even grow in the Covid-19 era. A mid-year survey by Northern Kentucky Tri-ED found optimism for recovery among the business leaders, a trait that will be essential in the months ahead. The community has also rallied behind local small businesses, with the cities of Covington and Newport providing aid, not for profits such as Horizon Community Funds and Greater Cincinnati Foundation providing hundreds of thousands of dollars in relief, and individuals supporting homegrown businesses.


The quest for racial equity and justice

An outpouring of support and demands for change followed the May death at police hands of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the March death of Breonna Taylor in Louisville. How Northern Kentucky police departments, cities, towns, counties, and businesses continue to respond to the challenge of improving diversity, inclusion, and respect in their practices are issues for 2021 and beyond. How Northern Kentucky leaders in government and business sustain and deepen their responses to demands for justice and equity will be critical. Whether new leaders emerge in this arena to breathe new life into the quest will be something to watch.

Transforming and investing in our neighborhoods

Northern Kentucky’s neighborhoods, especially those in the urban core, have undergone dramatic change in recent years, and more is on the way. Covington will continue to grow more diverse, particularly its Latinx population; its historic Latonia neighborhood will see progress as it strives to capitalize on its town square feel with local businesses; and its City Heights public housing project could be nearing decisions on its future. Newport’s long-awaited Ovation development is expected to take shape with the completion of a $40 million music venue operated by big-time music promoter PromoWest, and its Newport on the Levee riverfront development could see more changes under a new local owner. Critical to the region’s progress will be whether smaller cities such as Bellevue, Dayton, and Ludlow will continue to have the capacity and leadership to transform and grow.


Building capacity for entrepreneurship

Entrepreneurship will continue to be a growth engine for the region. Northern Kentucky University’s Collaborative for Economic Engagement, designed to be a hub for entrepreneurship, should experience its first full year of activity at Covington’s Innovation Alley. More than two dozen partners have signed on with NKU to help the center become a connector for entrepreneurs, business leaders, investors, educational programs, non-profits, government agencies, and economic development organizations. The Innovation Alley district should continue to grow with the addition of a small-business coach and more startups, as well as refinements to its facilities. Blue North, born at Northern Kentucky Tri-ED, will see its first full year as an independent startup community serving the eight-county region.


Recovery and growth at the airport

A key driver for growth in Northern Kentucky and the entire region is the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. Passenger traffic fell precipitously in 2020 as business and leisure travel came to a near-standstill. However, cargo traffic increased as e-commerce and shopping from home grew exponentially. While passenger traffic will likely be slow to come back to pre-pandemic levels, the cargo trend should continue in 2021 as the world’s largest e-commerce company, Amazon, continues building out its North American air hub at the airport, and rival DHL continues expanding its hub there.

The region’s role in reshaping the supply chain

The nation’s supply chain, the backbone of commerce, broke down in 2020, causing shortages all kinds of necessities, including toilet paper and cleaning wipes. Northern Kentucky will be a link in the rebuilding and transformation of the supply chain with major presences of Amazon, DHL, and FedEx helping to drive innovation and efficiency. These three giants, as well as homegrown companies such as Verst Logistics, Frayt, and Plus-MFG should push innovation in the supply chain. Also contributing will be Blue North, which has partnered with The Worldwide Supply Chain Federation and an early-stage fund that invests in supply chain technologies to launch a local chapter of the Federation. It’s also working with startup accelerators in other cities to create a supply chain ecosystem here.


Protecting, preserving, and expanding space for recreation

Our parks, forests, greenspaces, and recreation areas were never used as much as they were in 2020. Northern Kentucky’s network of such spaces should continue growing and being improved upon in the year ahead. Covington is refining a comprehensive master plan to guide the future of its nearly 1,000 acres of parkland and green space spread out over more than 30 different parks, playgrounds and facilities. The city of Wilder has ambitious plans for its Frederick’s Landing park, envisioning it as a focal point of the city’s redevelopment. In Boone County, the Boone Conservancy, 800 acres of greenspace, earned a new source of funding from Horizon Community Funds to preserve the natural areas it stewards.

Progress on Riverfront Commons

Riverfront Commons, the visionary project to connect Northern Kentucky’s river cities, made progress in the last year and should continue moving forward in this one. A signature project of Southbank Partners, Riverfront Commons is conceived to be an 11.5-mile walking and biking path that runs along the Ohio River and connects Ludlow, Covington, Newport, Bellevue, Dayton, and Fort Thomas. Two Newport legs of the urban trail were dedicated midyear, and construction on a second phase of Covington’s stretch progressed in 2020. The ambitious project, in the works since 2006, should move ahead given the funding it needs from public and private interests.


Collaboration, compromise on a new Brent Spence Bridge

Replacing the Brent Spence Bridge, the main artery connecting Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati, has been debated for decades. The I-75 bridge now carries way more traffic than it was designed for when it was built in the ‘60s. In November, a fiery crash between two semis, one of them carrying a hazardous chemical, closed the bridge for more than a month, leading to delays, detours, and backups. It will be interesting to see if the lengthy closure will prompt federal and state legislators on both sides of the river to come together to seek a funding solution to start the long process of building a new one.


Churchill Downs’ redevelopment of Turfway Park

Kentucky’s signature industry, horse racing, returned to Turfway Park in December but the facility itself remained closed to fans due to the pandemic and ongoing construction. Turfway’s new owner, Churchill Downs Inc., is in the midst of a major overhaul of the course and its facilities, which will include a new synthetic track. Construction was paused for a time in 2020, but this year may see the completion of the redevelopment project at the course, which supports hundreds of direct full- and part-time positions, and is critical to economic development in the city of Florence and the surrounding region.



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Read more articles by David Holthaus.

David Holthaus is the managing editor of NKY Thrives, an award-winning journalist, and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading or watching classic movies.