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Whiskey Row Fire Could Invigorate Interest In Downtown Preservation, Developer Says

Valle Jones saw smoke Monday afternoon billowing over downtown Louisville as she drove into town on River Road.

She thought the worst. An investing developer for the Whiskey Row redevelopment project, Jones had just been told that the historic buildings were ablaze.

As she traveled to see the damage, Jones fretted that the money and work she and her partners had put into the project—and not to mention about 140 years of history—would be lost.

The fire did, in fact, ravage the three Whiskey Row buildings on Main Street.

But, on Tuesday afternoon, Jones said she's confident the plans for the project can still become a reality. If she's correct, then hope remains that one of Louisville's most historic and iconic sections will regain some of its past glory.

Whiskey Row has strong ties to the city's bourbon-fueled growth in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

In those days, the district was the home base for many bourbon companies, and was also a bustling commercial district, said Tom Owen, a Louisville Metro councilman and local historian.

As the bourbon industry's presence in Louisville faded, Whiskey Row was occupied by professional offices and stores. But the block suffered along with all of downtown in the latter part of the 1900s, and would be largely vacant through the '80s into present times.

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In 2011, a group of investors, Main Street Revitalization LLC, purchased a strip of buildings from 111 to 119 W. Main Street for about $5 million.

The plan was for apartments, offices, restaurants.

Jones told Insider Louisville that the group has spent about $12 million on the redevelopment so far.

She said the team doesn't plan on stopping with the project, despite the damage and the loss of nearly the entire interior of the buildings. Jones said the development team will await a report from experts on the structural stability of the buildings, and then go from there.

The fire was a setback. But beyond simply believing the project will restart, Jones believes the fire could inspire a stronger community push to revitalize downtown, she said.

"This could be the phoenix that rises from the ashes," she said. "Not only for these buildings, but for the cause of historic preservation and historic revitalization in Louisville."

Construction crews began the renovation work a week before the fire, Louisville Fire & Rescue officials said. The crews were the last known people to enter the building.

The timing was brutal for Louisville's economic development officials.

"Not that it would have ever been something that I would have wanted to see happen, but to see it happen now is particularly poignant and particularly distressing," said Rebecca Matheny, executive director of the Louisville Downtown Partnership.

Matheny called Whiskey Row the "golden child" of preservation efforts in Louisville.

Develop Louisville director Jim Mims said the fire shouldn't slow the efforts to redevelop older buildings in the city.

"I don't know if you can weigh the entire redevelopment effort and its future on the loss of three buildings," he said.

Mims said the Whiskey Row project is significant, but there are "many important projects going on in downtown and Louisville Metro."

For instance, Mims pointed to the push to revamp the East Market Street area, the Omni Hotel project and the upcoming Kindred development near Fourth Street and Broadway.

Mims said smart developers know the risks involved with investing in an old building and he doesn't see it stopping anytime soon.

The buildings may be critically damaged, the project may be on standby, but the desire to do something with the space will certainly endure, Mims said.

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.