Bellevue: A river city where the old meets the new

The city of Bellevue, population 5,800, is a place where the old and new co-exist.

Its newest business, the Latin American-flavored eatery Yuca, shares the Fairfield Avenue strip with shops that have occupied the town’s main drag since the Roosevelt era.

A few doors down from Yuca, Schneider’s Sweet Shop has been dishing out homemade candy and ice cream since 1939, owned and operated by the Schneider family for all of those 82 years.

The Schneider family lived upstairs, and when Jack Schneider was 13, his father yelled up the stairs for him to get an apron on and get down there because a worker didn’t show up that day. Jack has been involved since then, and full-time since the ‘80s.

Schneider’s is noteworthy for its longevity (and its variety of tempting sweets), but it’s not the oldest retail enterprise in Bellevue. That distinction belongs to Cleves and Lonnemann Jewelers, established in 1932 by Ed Cleves and Joe Lonnemann after the two were let go by Motch Jewelers in Covington during a Great Depression downsizing. Cleves and Lonnemann, which specializes in high-end watch repair, transitioned to a fourth generation of the Cleves family in 2017.

“We do something you can’t get in a department store,” says Charlie Cleves, whose son Mike now owns the store.

A couple of years ago, Cleves, who was elected Bellevue’s mayor in 2019, commissioned a study of Bellevue’s riverfront and the Fairfield Avenue business district, which resides a couple of blocks from the river. Fairfield Avenue and its Main Street-style small businesses have been a not-so-well-kept secret for years, but the report said the Avenue’s renaissance “more than likely reached its peak approximately five years ago.”

The business mix had grown a bit tired, the report said, and lacked “the vitality and steady visits that allows both a daytime and evening variety of shopping and use.”

That may be changing since the report was made public nearly two years ago.

Yuca opened in early September with a Latin American menu for breakfast, lunch, and weekend brunch. Owner Jeremy Faeth also owns the popular brunch spot Cedar in Covington. He chose Bellevue for the the site of his second restaurant because of its size, walkability, and the character of the Avenue.

“Bellevue is about the size of a coat closet; if you drive too fast you might miss it,” he says. “But there’s just so much character.”

Located in the old Campbell County Bank building (former home of The Fairfield), Faeth converted the old bank vault into the tequila vault, which showcases the wealth of the spirit’s varieties.

Across Fairfield Avenue from Yuca, Cork and Crust is scheduled to open soon in the site of the old Virgil’s restaurant. It will feature a menu of gourmet pizzas and wine on tap.

New York-based Windmiller Properties, the owner of the four-story Bellevue Plaza, a 12-year-old building on Fairfield Avenue, is planning to open a high-end restaurant with river views on the top floor, Cleves says.

And the city-owned property that was previously home to Joe’s Crab Shack, which closed in 2020, will be home to Enson Harbor, a seafood restaurant owned by the Enson Group, a food distributor based in Lockland.

There’s a lot more in the works in tiny Bellevue.

The most intriguing is a possible developer for six acres of riverfront property owned by the city.

“A developer has expressed strong interest,” says city manager Frank Warnock.  “We’ve been meeting with them.”

No one will say who the developer is, except that it’s very experienced, based in Greater Cincinnati, and is considering high-end condominiums, a hotel, and retail space for the property. The riverfront property is just east of Bellevue’s Harbor Greene condo development (where a 3-bed, 3-bath unit recently listed for a cool $1.25 million).

The city’s riverfront has for ages been its most attractive feature. In the early 1900s, Bellevue claimed a sandy beach that hundreds would flock to so they could frolic in the Ohio River on a hot afternoon.

After the disastrous 1937 flood, the federal government gave Northern Kentucky’s river cities the option to build earthen floodwalls while the Ohio River’s system of dams and detention lakes was being built to contain the river. Unlike neighboring Newport and Covington, Bellevue did not build a floodwall, a decision that maintained the town’s connection to the river.

Bellevue recently was awarded a $950,000 grant to help construct its portion of Riverfront Commons, the 11-mile running, walking, and biking path designed to wind through Northern Kentucky’s river cities. “We’re just going to attack it a piece at a time, just like all the cities are doing,” Cleves says.

That grant is one of $9.9 million in state and federal grants that Warnock proudly lists the city has been awarded since he became city manager in early 2019. Most are for infrastructure projects like sidewalks, streets, and sewers. One $5.7 million grant is to stabilize the Bellevue hillside that rises from the river.

Another is to improve storm sewers around a new single-family housing development in the early stages of construction. Neyer Properties is leading the $30 million project to build 74 homes on property that was once a dilapidated trailer park.

Unfortunately, no grants have been made to restore the Marianne Theater, the Art Deco style movie house that’s been on Fairfield Avenue since it opened in 1942. However, the city controls the property, and has maintained its façade, using the marquee to publicize city-sponsored events like its recent art in the park weekend.

There’s been interest from private parties to redevelop the theater, most recently from two local, independent filmmakers who wanted to convert it to a community arts center. But the property will need a couple million dollars invested to make it habitable again, Warnock says.

“We’ve had some interested parties that have gone through it,” he says, “but no one has gotten their checkbooks out.”     

“Our goal is to save the façade and keep that intact,” he says.

Treasuring the old and welcoming the new is a formula that seems to work for Bellevue.

After 35 years of working 60-hour weeks at Schneider’s Sweet Shop, Jack Schneider is ready to retire. He took over the business in 1986, as his father prepared to close the store, as he had no one in the family to take it over.  Although Jack had a good job at the old Milacron complex in Cincinnati, he always helped out at the store, and he was ready for a change.

He and his wife, Kathy, took over with a simple business plan: “I made a deal with my wife: You take care of the books; I’ll make the candy. If we start going in the hole, you let me know.”

It worked.

Jack says the store will survive his retirement, as his kids have talked about taking over, a nephew is interested, and he knows of local retirees who have expressed interest in the store as a second career.

“It’s going to be there,” he says. “It’s never going to go away.”

That may be Bellevue’s best news yet.

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