Envy of the region


Newport may be an economic powerhouse now, but it didn't shed its reputation for sleaze and corruption easily - or quickly.


Once synonymous with sleaze and corruption, Newport has reinvented itself as a model of forward-thinking economic development, becoming the envy of city planners throughout the region.

Not too long ago, people stayed away from Newport. Today, it's often standing room only at Newport on the Levee and the Hofbrauhaus -- where the nighttime crowds sometimes outnumber those across the river in downtown Cincinnati.

But just when Newport turned the corner from urban squalor to boom town is a matter of debate.

The common view is that the transition began with the Committee of 500 and the election of George Ratterman as sheriff of Campbell County in 1961. The reform that resulted put an end to organized crime and gambling in Newport and, for that matter, Northern Kentucky.

A less common view is that Newport languished for the two decades that followed the Committee of 500: While the gamblers were gone, prostitution and other forms of skin trade flourished -- not as openly as in the past, but in dark strip clubs with red brocade wallpaper and strobe-lit stages.

In that view, the real changes in Newport didn't start until Jan. 1, 1982, when a reform city commission slate of Steve Goetz, Laura Bradley, Tom Ferrara and Fred Osburg took the oath of office.

"That's when the true revitalization and rebirth of Newport began," said City Manager Phil Ciafardini.

"I don't share the view that the Committee of 500 cleaned up Newport, because it's clear to me that, 20 years after George Ratterman, things got worse. But in 1982, we had a new breed of elected leadership chosen by the people of Newport who, after the debacle of 1980 and '81, had finally and absolutely had enough of what had been going on in this community for decades."

By 1983, Newport was in dire economic straits. The city had lost its largest employer with the closing of the Wiedemann Brewery. The only whisper of economic activity on  Newport's riverfront was the old Captain's Anchorage restaurant, which at one time was owned by Dewey Peluso, brother of long-time Newport political figure Johnny "TV" Peluso, who would soon be serving three years in a federal prison in Lexington for being less than forthcoming with a federal grand jury.

Against that backdrop, Newport hired Laura Long to be its first economic development director.

"One economic culture had been cleaned out, leaving a void," said Long, who arrived in Newport in May 1983 and remained until 1998, when she left to become executive director of the Cincinnati Business Committee.

"That means you have to create a new economic culture. In Newport, it took a generation to do that. In every city, that's how long it takes."

Long's first task was to organize an economic development vision -- to put together a plan to increase the tax base.

"Every city has to wake up every day and figure out how to make new money," Long said.

"When you're landlocked with only three-point-six square miles of property, like we were in Newport, you have to figure how much of your money will come from your internal economy -- the people who live there and do business there -- and how much from your external economy -- people who come there, spend money and leave.

"In 1983, we had to start with a new external market. And the internal market was so weak, it couldn't support itself."

A key for the internal market was the first Rehab-A-Rama in the spring of 1993. Lacking the funding to buy up historic properties and rehab them for resale, Newport took a different approach.

The city arranged to have local developers and contractors buy run-down residential properties -- of which there were an abundance -- sign agreements to follow city design standards and, with low-interest loans, adapt the properties for modern living without sacrificing their 19th century character and charm.

"That's why Rehab-A-Rama was so important,'' she said. "It helped us refill rehabbed homes at a good market price. It was a defining moment in changing Newport's residential fabric."

Other keys to Newport's renaissance:

•  The arrival of The Islands restaurant and entertainment complex on the river in 1983. In its first five months, The Islands grossed $5 million. Developed by Dick Schilling, once owner of the Beverly Hills Supper Club, The Islands later was purchased by the Comisar family and renamed Newport Beach.

"The evolution of our economic development program began with Riverboat Row -- and The Islands was the first arrival on Riverboat," said Ciafardini.

•   Later in the decade, the city convinced two developers to put up a high-rise office building that would be called Riverfront Place, despite the fact that the project was undertaken before any tenants had signed on. Long helped push the project along by landing a $3 million federal Urban Development Action Grant.

•   The next big wave began in 1989, when the city created the redevelopment area where the Newport Aquarium and Newport on the Levee would eventually take shape. The aquarium started in 1996 and the Levee, a new breed of commercial development known as a lifestyle center, came five years later.

Long remembers an editorial cartoon that accompanied the opening of the aquarium.

"It was about Newport with the caption 'Girls girls girls' crossed out and replaced with 'Fish fish fish'" she said.

"It took a long time to change that image."

To Ciafardini, Newport on the Levee is emblematic of the city's dramatic transformation.

"People have always known the way to Newport -- this was the place where people came for entertainment," he said. "What we've done is make the transition from adult entertainment to family entertainment."

Other developments have further helped reshape Newport's image -- the construction of million-dollar homes on Wiedemann Hill, the new city building on Monmouth, the World Peace Bell, and the $5 million Monmouth Streetscape project. The approval of a $26 million Hope VI grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2000 helped build or renovate more than 300 subsidized housing units in the city.

"The whole idea is to change the face of public housing while offering training programs to help people get off welfare," said Pat Wingo, who succeeded Long as Newport's economic development director and is now Florence's city coordinator.

"It will be mixed-income units, with a $250,000 condo next to a subsidized condo with a price of $50,000."

These days, Ciafardini gets calls from people in other city administrations wanting to know how Newport got this done or that built. "People ask me, 'What's with Newport?'" he says. "I remember a time not too long ago when Newport was everybody's example of what not to do. It's neat that now we're an example of how to get things done. Newport is now the leader."


Kentucky Post, September 7, 2004, By David Wecker, Post staff reporter,