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In East Downtown, A Departing Grocery Store Leaves Behind Uncertainty

A sign in a parking lot off Liberty Street advertises food for sale, but Latur Fitzgerald isn't biting.

The food, he said, is either overpriced or spoiled.

"And half the time, they ain't even got it," he said.

Yet still, nearly every day Fitzgerald leaves his sixth floor room in Dosker Manor, walks across the parking lot and heads up the ramp in to the First Link Discount Center.

"I come up here to get my liquor," he said.

The 47,000 square-foot building that for decades has been home to a supermarket, pharmacy and full-service meat processing plant is slated for auction next month.

The impending sale has sparked a debate about what's next for the site, which is situated on the edge of change. Sandwiched between the East Market Street corridor and a growing Central Business District, this lot has long served public housing residents in the 700-unit Dosker Manor.

The question now is who will be the target of the next development.

The liquor store and its chips, dips and beef jerky are all that's left of the once-bustling First Link shopping center.

Fitzgerald grew up in the area and remembers when First Link provided the neighborhood with quality service. These days selection is scant, he said Wednesday, but the convenience remains unmatched.

For that, Fitzgerald and many nearby residents are torn knowing the last days of First Link are here.

"If they leave, it's going to hurt," said Robert Sims, who lives nearby in the mixed-income Liberty Green housing development.

Many in the neighborhood now -- and before, when it was dominated by the Clarksdale housing project -- depend on the small shop. It's a quick trip and a short walk for snacks and smokes.

Varen Sullivan, who lives on the second floor of Dosker Manor, said First Link is the only option for many of her neighbors. Many are without a vehicle, and there's no direct bus service to the nearest Kroger in Old Louisville.

The acclaimed Omni Hotel and luxury apartment development project on Third Street is expected to bring another grocery store to the downtown area. But that's blocks from the First Link site, and it's expected to offer more high-end product than the generic brands and discount prices Dosker Manor residents are accustomed to.

Democratic Metro Councilman David Tandy represents District 4, which includes the downtown area and the stretch of Liberty Street currently served by First Link. He said there are a "number of different uses" for the First Link property, and the market demand will dictate what comes next.

"I think it's clear that an opportunity exists for a full-service grocery store to be located in the downtown area," he said.

Tandy said he hasn't heard from any interested grocers looking to purchase the First Link site.

Candidates running to replace Tandy, who is stepping down, on the Metro Council also have their eye on what's next for the First Link property.

Bryan Burns said he'd prefer to see a grocery store there.

"I think it's very important to keep food where we can when we have such problems with food deserts," he said.

Barbara Sexton Smith, who's also a Democrat running in the primary for the seat, said better food options are key for the downtown area.

"We must always ask the neighbors what they need and want," she said.

A spokeswoman for the city's economic development department said the property is a "great business development opportunity in an advantageous location."

First Link's owners initially declined an interview for this story. But Robin Silverman, who is married to owner Bruce Silverman, later denied the claims of subpar products and overpriced goods.

She said First Link has retained a top ranking from city health inspectors and persistently low prices sustained the business for some seven decades. First Link earned a perfect score from city health inspectors in October 2015, according to records from the Department of Public Health.

Silverman cited road closures from the Ohio River Bridges Project as the reason for the store’s demise, not poor service.

A news release from Key Auctioneers markets the property for its location near the the University of Louisville Medical Center and the "trendy" East Market Street district.

"Its location in a busy, high-traffic area close to both I-65 and the Ohio River in downtown Louisville give this versatile space significant redevelopment potential," according to the release.

For some residents, the answer for what should come next for the First Link site is a no-brainer.

"A grocery store," Sullivan said.

She said that while she can hop on a bus and go across town if she needs, she worries about other residents who can't move so freely. "This spot is so convenient," she said.

"It's the best spot," Sims said, putting a slightly finer point on it.

For Fitzgerald, who's been getting his groceries elsewhere for years, the upcoming auction is a pleasant surprise. He said an upgraded, full-service grocery could bring him across the street for more than just a bottle of booze.

*This story has been updated with comments from Robin Silverman, who is married to First Link owner Bruce Silverman. The store's owners twice declined interviews for this story but later asked to respond.


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.

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