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Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Fort Thomas Plaza's Future Bright

A far cry from the old Fort Thomas Plaza, Fort Thomas Antiques & Design Center now offers Blues Night at the Highlander every Wednesday and Saturday night, with the G Miles Band.

Fort Thomas Plaza has had its ups and downs, but new business has greatly improved the shopping center. What was once mostly empty is now quite lively, with two new tenants opening their doors this month.

Change started happening when Ken Perry of Ken Perry Realty bought Fort Thomas Plaza in 2014. "The new owners put money into the building and the parking lot," says Debbie Buckley, renaissance manager and economic development director for City of Fort Thomas. "It began to look alive again. Suddenly you're seeing new tenants like barre3 and Grace Chapel. Older tenants are expanding. Their businesses are looking great!"

Barre3 will have their grand opening on September 28 and is offering free childcare during their first week.

Current tenants include Fort Thomas Antiques & Design Center, Swimville USA, barre3, Grace Fellowship Church, Fastenal, Spatola Wrestling and The Mail Room. While Domino's has moved its retail location to Newport Pavilion, they still hold a lease at Fort Thomas Plaza as a training store.

Much of the credit of Fort Thomas Plaza's success belongs to Rob Robinson, who opened Fort Thomas Antiques & Design Center November 2014.

"Rob Robinson came in with a vision that was ingenious—something that had never been done before in Campbell County, much less Fort Thomas," Buckley says. "It had energy, vitality, and something for everyone. The Antique and Design Center has brought in an array of folks from all over the tristate to buy and sell. It creates energy." 

Robinson currently has about 100 dealers, artists, pickers, repurposers—and a candlemaker. "They are wonderful to work for and with," he says. "They have created one of the most unique shopping experiences you will find anywhere. We have about 40 or so people on our waiting list—our dealer turnover has been very low to this point."

Robinson's marketing mantra is to attract kids from ages 18 to 80 who have never stepped foot in an antique or vintage store before. "Having a coffee house inside an antique mall is a natural fit," Robinson says. "Opening the Highlander Bourbon & Wine Bar and the Highlander Event Center is yet another way to draw in people who might not otherwise ever visit an antique mall." 

Highlander Bourbon & Wine Bar

Robinson says the Highlander Bourbon & Wine Bar provides a nice, unique twist to the Antiques & Design Center. "How many places do you know where you can have a glass of wine, a Kentucky Bourbon or a craft beer and walk around browsing and shopping," Robinson says. "We regularly host groups of women for ladies night out as well as groups of friends who just like to nit or even play Mahjong, a Chinese board game."

Perry says Robinson is a high-energy operator who will do well, no matter what he decides to do. "We are lucky to have him here in our center," Perry says. "The Antique Mall draws a very unique demographic as well as a lot of traffic. Each of these are very important to the plaza." 

The new entrance to Highlander Event Center. The Kentucky farmhouse mural was created by local artist Curtis Hueser.

Robinson and his team opened the Highlander Event Center in June. They already have weddings, Christmas parties and other events booked into October 2016, including the Northern Kentucky Charities Guild Happy Feet Ball on November 6, Robinson says. "Just this past Sunday, Grace Fellowship Church had their first Sunday service in the event center," Robinson says. "Grace has signed a three-year agreement and will be having services each Sunday at 10am. In the future we expect the event center to be a venue for companies such as P&G, Kroger and Fidelity. There are not many venues that have a 300-person occupancy limit and 300 parking places three miles from downtown Cincinnati."

Buckley says Robinson went "another mile" by starting the Event Center. "Everyone around started thinking of ways they could use that site," Buckley says. "Fundraisers, weddings, parties, all gave a whole new vibe to Fort Thomas Plaza. People started seeing the property in a whole new way."

Just ask Deneen Wolber, development and fundraiser manager at Spina Bifida Coalition of Cincinnati. She has hosted many events at Fort Thomas Antiques & Design Center all benefiting the Spina Bifida Coalition of Cincinnati. These include "The Dirty Valentine," "Girls Passport to Fun," "The Uncorked Artist," and an NFL kickoff party collaboration with the Give Hope Foundation. (If your organization would like to collaborate on an event, contact Wolber at

Deneen Wolber, development and fundraiser manager at Spina Bifida Coalition of Cincinnati has hosted many events at Fort Thomas Antiques & Design Center.

"Rob is the easiest person to work with," Wolber says. "He has wonderful ideas for events and he's willing to try any new ones. It's a very cool and unique place to have an event. I hold my 'friend-raisers' in the Highlander Bourbon Bar, that way guests can take their drinks and walk around the mall and shop. This is a perfect place to hold an event for under 120 people. Then there is the Highlander Event Center, which can hold close to 300 people. It is well decorated from a local artist. He will help you with your plans." 

Wolber wants to see Robinson succeed. "I like to plan little events with new people to see his place so they will be his future business," Wolber says. "We both help each other out."

Grace Fellowship Church is now hosting services Sunday mornings at Highlander Event Center.

Fort Thomas Antiques & Design Center's location, space and parking have provided them with a platform to do really great things for the community and nonprofit organizations, Robinson says. "Tammy Viox manages the Highlander Event Center, and she and I share the same vision," he says. "We want to provide 10 to 15 percent of the time available in the Event Center to support local charities." 

October 31st's event is called "Fright Night in the Antique Mall." It benefits both the Brighton Center and the Spina Bifida Coalition of Cincinnati. "Becky Timberlake from the Brighton Center, Deneen Wolber, who puts on many fundraisers for Spina Bifida, and Kate Walters of Q102 have been wonderful to work with," Robinson says. "We hope to sell 500 tickets for this event." 

Robinson also has been working with Michelle Renn, regional manager for Destiny Rescue, a charity focused on rescuing young girls from Southeast Asia's sex trade. "We provide discounted office space for Michelle and allow her to use the Highlander Lounge and Conference Room for events and fundraisers," Robinson says. "In fact she is hosting a 'Sip-n-Shop' wine event Thursday to raise awareness of their mission. Many of the young girls they have rescued make beautiful handmade jewelry that we sell here. Every dollar goes right back to them to help them support themselves and their families." 

The diversification of Fort Thomas Plaza has continued with barre3 and Grace Fellowship Church. The church hosted its first worship service at the Highlander Event Center September 13, which drew 270 people. With the help of Paul Hemmer Company, the church also renovated three existing suites in the Plaza, which will serve as classrooms, meeting areas and office space.

Buckley hopes to see more interesting retail in the future. "Things that are unusual and charming," she says. "Businesses that you won't find everywhere else."

What happened to the farmer's market? "Most of our Wednesday market vendors were already booked at other markets in the area," Buckley says. "We've been doing this for a number of years now, and folks are set in their patterns. We got started on the idea of the Friday market at the Plaza a little late this year. We hope to draw some new vendors for next year."

Everyone involved with Fort Thomas Plaza has high hopes for the future. "Debbie Buckley and I are always brainstorming," Robinson says. "I would love to build a farm stand, something like the one at Findlay Market, here in our parking lot. Given our central location and access to I-471, I believe we could create a social and cultural event unlike any other here in Northern Kentucky. Can you imagine an Oktoberfest event here in the parking lot of the Fort Thomas Plaza with a dozen or more farmers and artists selling their produce and art under the canopy of a well-built farm stand?"

Buckley agrees the future looks "undoubtedly" bright. "Rob is exactly the right fit for Fort Thomas," she says. "He has exactly the right product and it's in the perfect location. He is warm and inviting. His business thrives because the vendors know what to produce. That business is helping the surrounding businesses by bringing customers to the site. It really is a win/win."

Perry says he has one additional tenant considering the Plaza but the deal is still confidential. "We are very excited about our leasing for 2015 and look forward to filling the plaza by mid next year," Perry says. "The City for Fort Thomas has been very helpful with our leasing and has been overall great to work with." 

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