Covington’s legendary leader, Tom Dibello

Over the years, the historic Ritte’s Corner in the Covington neighborhood of Latonia, has drastically changed. And some of that change can be attributed to the leadership of Tom DiBello and the work he has done in Northern Kentucky’s nonprofit arena.

Just over 40 years after it was founded, the Covington-based nonprofit, The Center for Great Neighborhoods, operates in a very different environment from the one in which it began, mostly due to the leadership of Tom DiBello.

After speaking with DiBello, you can’t say for sure if he was born to be a leader, but his work in Covington — through his time at The Center for Great Neighborhoods — shows a passion that illustrates how he has become one, all while pursuing what he loves.

DiBello has been enthused with activism since the 70s when his interest peaked while at LaSalle University (then LaSalle College), where he walked into a AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America Office on campus and told them, “Sign me up!”

“They gave me a choice of three cities to send me to,” says DiBello, who grew up in Philadelphia. “I don’t remember one of the cities, but I remember having a choice of working with the rural elderly in Fayette, Mississippi or urban youth in Covington.”

DiBello decided it was important to pursue his passion. And what he was passionate about was working in an urban setting, so he headed to Covington.

“In college,” DiBello says, “I found myself to be socially inclined to romanticize activism.” So it was only a matter of time until his love for community became the foundation for his life’s work at The Center.

According to its website, The Center for Great Neighborhoods is a nonprofit organization creating minds and changing places. It began in 1976 when the Fourth Street Center and Downtown Neighborhood Center merged to become the Covington Community Center to serve the emergency needs of low-income residents, provide recreation activities for youth, and help residents address community issues.

DiBello knows that success doesn’t happen overnight but is the culmination of a lot of hard work. He has taken on this philosophy as he has led The Center: With help from the community it serves, The Center can focus more heavily on community development efforts and building a stronger network of resident­-led neighborhood groups.

This vision is part of the reason DiBello received the Founder Award in 2016, presented by the Covington Business Council, for service in advancing the economic well-being in the city.

Tom DiBello speaking at the Hellmann Creative Center’s grand opening.
No matter what, a legendary leader continues to look forward, unfazed by any barriers or missteps along the way to garner success.

Which may be why, in 2005, the Covington Community Center officially changed its name to The Center for Great Neighborhoods and, in 2016, moved to the. $2.2 million Hellmann Creative Center, transformed by The Center from an abandoned lumberyard.

This project is just one of the many places in Covington that illustrates the city’s proud past and current renewal, touched by the hand of The Center. With its exposed ductwork and rafters, its massive steel tank on the roof that once pulled sawdust from the interior, and its exposed brick interior, coupled with the internal museum giving homage to its past incarnation, the building was recently placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Not only does the building house the offices of The Center, but also serves as a community art space, studio spaces for artists and small businesses, as well as space for the community to hold events.

“It was important to me, when we incorporated the space for artists,” DiBello says, “that they use the space to give back to the community.”

Over the last half decade, The Center has capitalized on Covington’s recent development, including Hotel Covington, a $21.5 million boutique hotel; Braxton Brewery, which draws nightly crowds; and the newly renovated buildings for Gateway Community & Technical College and the Covington branch of the Kenton County Public Library. In addition, with all the new restaurants, creative projects, and residential units, the city of Covington has definitely come a long way and The Center plans to be there as it continues to progress.

From the city’s earliest days, its residents have reimagined and remade themselves again and again. In 1814, the city’s founders prospered with tobacco production, but couldn’t have imagined that 40 years later, they would be living in a city that held distilleries and steel and glass factories, crisscrossed by railroads linking the North and the South. More recently, Baby Boomers couldn’t have imagined the city they grew up in transformed by coffee shops, eclectic eateries, audacious music venues, and boutique hotels.

The organization’s reach is larger than just the city’s downtown. In 2014, Dibello and his team completed a new Cardinals Community Park, located at Latonia Elementary, expanding the school’s playground to create an multi-generational facility. And the organization, under DiBello’s lead, continues to change. Just recently, The Center began a 13-week program to identify, train, nurture, and energize a new set of civic leaders in Covington.

“We listen to the community,” DiBello says about why he has steered The Center from providing direct service to more of a creative place-making juggernaut lined with an economic development mindset. “We heard from the community that they wanted safer neighborhoods and affordable housing. So we tried to make that happen for them.”

Though originally owning no property, after rehabbing several dozen buildings, The Center has become a mini-mogul and uses a multi-faceted approach to incorporate property development in their mission.

“We are connecting the community with the people and resources who can best help them buy property or to live in affordable housing,” DiBello says. “Just recently, we began to accept Section 8 vouchers.”

From youth outreach to organic gardening, The Center looks to improve residents’ quality of life by improving the spaces that they live, work, and play in while improving their own self-capital.

Read more articles by Kareem A. Simpson.

Raised in the inner city of Covington, Kentucky, Kareem Simpson is an author, innovator, community enthusiast, military veteran, serial entrepreneur, foodie and lover of all things creative.
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