Friday, October 18, 1996
Waterfront stuck in mud in Covington

BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Jeff Ruby has Northern Kentucky's only three-star restaurant and used-tire dump.

You can find both at the Waterfront, that glitzy eatery on three barges lashed to Covington's shoreline.

The Waterfront used to float free, buoyed by the Ohio and a reputation for attracting jet-setters and high-fliers.

Now the restaurant is listing to starboard, stuck in a quagmire of mud, unpaid bills and legal hassles. Things are so bad, Mr. Ruby is thinking about weighing anchor for calmer waters.

Before that happens - or before enough debris settles to form a new bridge across the Ohio - I think this mess must be unclogged.

The Waterfront may still be the place where the beautiful people chow down, but outside, it looks pretty ugly.

Where the river used to lap at the shore, piles of driftwood lay scattered like a giant game of pick-up-sticks. Pools of smelly, stagnant water show off putrid shades of green and black.

Grass and weeds grow between mounds of junk, assorted Styrofoam cups, baseballs, empty 2-liter bottles, a soccer ball and - as of Thursday afternoon - 17 old car tires.

''Some days,'' Jeff Ruby says, ''I've got more tires out there than Bob Sumerel.''

This garbage clogs the space between the river's bank and the restaurant's barges. Where ducks once bobbed for dinner rolls, cats prowl the driftwood for river rats.

Something else has changed. The sunny relationship between the Waterfront and Covington has turned stormy. The city recently sued the restaurant for $362,000 in back rent. The riverfront location hasn't put a rent check in the mail since December.

''We turn 10 years old this month,'' Mr. Ruby grumps. ''And we get a lawsuit from the city of Covington. That's some birthday present.''

Could be the city doesn't like putting ribbons around unpaid bills.

Cleanliness rules

Mr. Ruby is pulling a Marge Schott. He's withholding his rent until he gets his way. He wants the muck cleaned up. At Covington's expense.

The city says: We are not your mother. Clean up your own mess.

He says he's tried. Mr. Ruby claims he spent $600,000 to have the river dredged. ''That didn't work. The trees and stuff came right back.''

He plans to spend $300,000 more to have his barges towed an additional 50 feet from shore so they can float again.

If the city doesn't cut him some slack and cancel his debt, he swears he might tow his barges farther than 50 feet.

''I'm looking at other locations,'' he says. ''But I want to stay in Covington.''

The city's standing firm. The barge belongs to Mr. Ruby. His property is causing the problem, catching floating debris and silt. Therefore, the city feels it is under no obligation to play Roto-Rooter.

''Our position is that the tenant is responsible for dredging the river and cleaning up the debris,'' says Covington Solicitor Joe Condit.

Covington's city engineer, Terry Hughes, says the Waterfront is fighting a losing battle - with the river.

''A floating restaurant creates an obstacle. The river slows down around it; silt settles. After our yearly flood and spring rains, debris sticks to it. Cleanup is constant. You can never let up.''

Grass on the water

Upstream, Covington Landing has a smaller log jam.

''I used to see kayakers paddling where the driftwood is,'' says Bob Conway Jr., whose Bistro Group owns a TGIFriday's restaurant in the floating complex.

Today, the kayakers would need chainsaws to cut through the tangle of grass and vines growing on top of the mud-covered tree trunks. But Mr. Conway is not waiting for city crews.

''It's our responsibility to clean it up,'' he says. ''Not the city's. Being on the river offers special challenges.''

Special challenges. Special location. The Ohio is Greater Cincinnati's heart.

With something so vital, I think Jeff Ruby and Covington officials need to take a corner table at the Waterfront. They must figure out how to make the flotsam outside the window go away.

Until they do, they're both stuck in the muck.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.