Creating a workforce dedicated to historic preservation

They don’t make ‘em like they used to.

That old saying is true. It’s why old residences in the urban cores of Covington, Newport, Cincinnati, and elsewhere are so treasured.

But it also means that the tradespeople who can skillfully restore, repair, and update these old homes, some of which were constructed 200 years ago, can be hard to find.

It’s why the city of Covington has enlisted partners in the building trades to create a solution to the challenge of preserving historic buildings, and in the bargain, help skill up the local workforce.

The city is planning the Covington Restoration Trades School to teach specialized construction skills and the lost art of historic preservation.

City officials hope to begin the program by June 2022 and have enlisted the help of local and national experts to get it started.

“If we’re successful, Covington could build a uniquely skilled workforce essentially from scratch, create hundreds of jobs for its residents, and assist property owners desperate for trained expertise rehabbing their historic homes,” says Christopher Myers, whose role of regulatory services manager at the city includes oversight of historic preservation.

Chief among Covington’s partners is the Building Industry Association of Northern Kentucky, a non-profit advocacy and membership organization that promotes and advances the needs of the building industry. Its Enzweiler Building Institute, in operation since 1967, uses an apprentice-style format to develop skilled labor in trades like rough and finish carpentry, plumbing, masonry, electric, and welding.

What is currently does not do is teach restoration trades.

“Given the astounding numbers of historical buildings in not only Covington but other parts of Northern Kentucky, there’s a huge need to create a robust workforce dedicated to restoration,” says Vicki Berling, director of professional development at the association.

The city has also hired two consultants using two federally funded grants that were matched with city money. Preservation Resources Inc. of Hannibal, Mo., is the primary consultant to complete a report on the broad needs of historic buildings, find properties that could be used as hands-on classroom projects, and write the curriculum for the program.

It also hired Donovan Rypkema and his Washington, D.C.-based firm, PlaceEconomics, to conduct an economic analysis of the need for the program, and create a baseline of data to gauge the success of the program at a later date, including data related to skilled labor availability, and numbers of rehab projects.

The former Colonial Inn at 1515 Madison Ave., now severely dilapidated, closed, and owned by the city, may be used as a working laboratory. Its primary building is a historic mansion built in the 1880s in a Queen Anne design, featuring bay windows, a corner tower, and an original porch with milled decoration.

“If you name a trade, this building needs it,” says Economic Development Director Tom West. “So it could provide a controlled environment for rebuilding the porch, repairing wood floors, repairing plaster, fixing wood windows, etc. And that would enable us, over time, to start to stabilize and restore it for possible productive use.”

West says his department will look to create other “laboratories” in historic buildings and homes in other neighborhoods, particularly in low-income areas.

Earlier this month, the city held two listening sessions, inviting contractors, historic property owners, potential students, and potential sponsors to ask questions and learn about the project. More than a hundred people joined the virtual meetings or inquired about the project, Myers says, including people from North Carolina, Rhode Island, Florida, Washington D.C., Indiana, and Maryland.