It was a day dreamt up more than four years ago: that a former department store built in the early years of the 20th century as the first skyscraper in Kentucky could become a destination in the inner city as a boutique hotel.
There would be no hotel “flag” needed, according to this dream.
It would not be called Marriott or Hyatt or Hilton.
It would be called, Covington.
The Hotel Covington.
On Tuesday, half a block of Madison Avenue was shut down as a dream became reality and Hotel Covington opened its doors. There had not been a crowd as large standing near the still impressive 9-story tower since Coppin’s department store shuttered, or since a controversial issue drew residents to the site when it was Covington City Hall from 1990 to 2014.
Four years ago, the City of Covington placed a bet: that co-developers Aparium Hospitality, based in Chicago, and the Salyers Group, from here in town, could take a building that was only 20 percent occupied and in desperate need of repairs, and turn it into the most exciting new business in the region – oh, and also spur massive growth in the surrounding blocks.
The idea of the hotel was so strong, it turns out, that tons of growth downtown preceded its own opening. So, just like in the early 1900s when John Coppin was running out of money and needed to finish his namesake building, and he placed a bet on a horse called Knowledge at the Latonia Race Course, and hit it big – the signature project of downtown Covington’s renaissance crossed the finish line and stood in the winner’s circle Tuesday.
“I love it. When the city offices were here, we didn’t do this building justice. This building is amazing,” said Mayor Sherry Carran, sipping crawfish chowder as celebratory music played in the stunning new lobby. “(Salyers Group CEO) Guy van Rooyen saw the potential, so when he invited the Aprium Hotel Group here and they also saw that potential, they said this is the place.”
Aparium CEO Mario Tricoci predicted the hotel would be “wildly successful” and called it a “passion project”. Those are strong words from the head of a company that has blazed trails in the boutique hotel business, with The Iron Horse in Milwaukee, Charmont in LaCrosse, Wis., and Pontchartrain Hotel in New Orelans. Hotels in New Jersey, Minnesota, Michigan, and Missouri are forthcoming.
“It’s been a long road but this is an amazing project and we are thrilled to be here and open to the public,” Tricoci said. “I think it’s going to be a social hub for activity for Kentucky and for Ohio. It’s going to be a dynamic place to eat, drink, socialize and gather. We have created a place for spontaneous gatherings. It’s a very dynamic place and it’s amenable to all.”
The celebration mostly played out in the new lobby, an vast open space with a small front desk and gift shop near the front where visitors could browse locally-sourced souvenirs, liquors, and candies. A display honored the building’s department store heritage with hat boxes, shoes, and scarves on shelves as two women dressed in period garb handed out gift bags. The bar – with wine and local booze on tap – was busy, and the coffee bar was at the ready with Newport’s Carabello’s ready for those who needed a pick-up.
The restaurant, called Coppin’s, protrudes from the main building into the open-air courtyard, encased in glass and filled with thick wooden tables and sparse decor.
The inviting menu is sure to attract visitors, guests, and locals for any meal during the day.
The property is not yet completely finished. Several floors are still being finished, but the rooms that are available are filling up fast. The layouts bear the names of local history-makers like John Roebling (of Suspension Bridge fame). The luxurious finishes found in the lobby – like Donna Salyers’ Fabulous Furs and contemporary furniture – are also found in the rooms, but so, too, is a taste of whimsy. A guest may find a Magic 8 Ball or pack of Uno cards, created by locals, and the trash cans are shaped like shopping bags, another nod to John Coppin. The large windows open up to unobstructed views in every direction of a city that now shares a name with the sexiest destination in the region.
“It just looks fantastic. My eyes about came out of my head,” said City Manager Larry Klein, discussing the transformation from the old city building to a new hotel. “What this project does for downtown Covington and midtown – what it’s going to do for the small local businesses around here is going to be out of this world.”
Already, nearby Rima D’s and Covington Chili have extended their dinner and weekend hours, Braxton Brewing Company is an overnight success a block away, and soon more than 100 new apartments will be constructed a stone’s throw from the hotel.
Trey Grayson, president of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, said he had to call his wife, Nancy, while he was inside the hotel, so that he could show it to her on video. He was that blown away by it. “The courtyard, when that place gets going, it’s going to be really cool,” Grayson said. “The light coming in, the vibe, the food, they’ve got Carabello Coffee.”
Chuck Scheper, who spent 13 months as mayor and helped facilitate the hotel deal, celebrated the day, too.
“It’s exceeded my expectations. I knew it would be great based on Guy and his persistence,” Scheper said. “It really blew me away. I think this is going to be the new gathering spot, the new hub for the city.”
City Commissioner Steve Frank said that the hotel project and the Mutual Building commercial and residential development across the street gave other business prospects the courage they needed to give Covington a chance. “This basically planted the seeds,” Frank said.
“It’s a huge day for the community,” said van Rooyen, who also co-developed the Mutual Building with Ashley Development. The hotel project is strongly complemented by the Madison Event Center, another Salyers Group enterprise, that is frequently booked by wedding parties. “We branded it intentionally Covington, the Hotel Covington and there are so many little details reflecting the story of this great city.
“It took my breath away on how it all came together.”
Van Rooyen’s sentiment was shared by everyone who celebrated Tuesday’s opening.
“First class, all the way,” said former city commissioner Jerry Stricker, who was chatting with current city commissioner Chuck Eilerman, who family operated another historic downtown Covington department store a block away from Coppin’s.
“What they’ve done here is really world-class,” Eilerman said. “It means we’re really on the rebound in a significant way.”
Covington philanthropist Oakley Farris was enjoying the complimentary menu with his wife, Eva, as the band continued to play. “This is one of the best things that has ever happened to the City of Covington,” Farris said. “The young man who put this all together is a genius. He’s a fantastic guy.”
Eric Summe, CEO of meetNKY, the Northern Kentucky Convention and Visitors Bureau was checking out the new rooms and welcomed the first full service hotel in the region since the Marriott at RiverCenter opened in 1999. “It’s awesome,” he said. “It’s absolutely beautiful.”
Before the ribbon was cut to open the new hotel, general manager Jack Olshan, whose experience includes stints at luxury and famous properties across the country (most recently, a five-star resort in Texas), led the crowd in a toast. This is different he said.
“What this gives us is the ability to do is be truly unique, really find everything amazing that this local area has to offer and bring it into one building,” Olshan said. He noted the pillows made in Mason, Oh., towels made in Cincinnati, soaps from Memphis, Tenn., and Covington’s Fabulous Furs. “We’re just thrilled to bring all of these amazing things that this area has to offer into one building and give people the chance to experience them all at the same time.”
A eye-catching structure in the lobby is the outline of the United States – which looks like the Stewart Irons Works finishes throughout – and features wooden cutouts of Ohio and Kentucky (by Covington-based Grainwell) and a moving phrase: “If these United States are to be considered a body then Ohio would be its heart and Kentucky its soul.”
Over the years, as the hotel project progressed, van Rooyen often expressed his desire to capitalize on the fortune of Covington’s geographic location, where north meets south. In the Hotel Covington’s lobby on Tuesday, north met south, and the City of Covington met the project that will define its message for what many hope are years to come.
Story & photos by Michael Monks, editor & publisher