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Is The Portland Renaissance Real? An Assessment Of Progress

Over the 9, a restaurant situated squarely on 10th Street between Old 502 Winery and Falls City Brewing Company, sees the effects of the “Ninth Street Divide” during every service.

Owner David Smith Hagan says there are days when no customers show up. And while reviews of the restaurant have been mostly positive, they tend to have one thing in common: a critique along the lines of “walked in and business was slow.”

“I’ll be honest with you: This is not the ideal location for a restaurant,” Hagan says. “We don’t have any other restaurants around us, we don’t have any residential, hotel, very little businesses. We really aren’t in the ideal walk-up venue.

"But with our location and our name," he continues, "one of our biggest driving motivators is giving people that understanding that things on this side aren’t that bad.”

"This side" is the west side of Ninth Street. And the people he's talking about live, dine and socialize, by and large, to the east of it.

The I-64 overpass at Ninth and Main streets has for decades been a line of economic and racial demarcation in Louisville. And while Over the 9 is right at that divide, it is also technically in Portland -- the northwest neighborhood bounded by the Ohio River, 10th Street on the east, Market Street to the south, and Shawnee Golf Course in the west.

Hagan calls the location the "gateway to Portland."

But despite it being less than a mile from some of Louisville’s most popular restaurants -- Proof on Main is three blocks away, for example -- Hagan says customers just aren’t crossing the divide from the east.

They're not coming from the west, either.

Over the 9 is part of a first wave of reinvestment in Portland dating to 2011 and led by developer Gill Holland and other social entrepreneurs. Its successes and failures -- along with those of other early adopters -- can be seen as indicators of what progress those working to reimagine and revitalize the historic neighborhood are making, five years into the effort.

(Disclosure: Holland is a member of Louisville Public Media's board of directors.)

The Portland renaissance was presented as a win-win for the neighborhood and business owners. Businesses would get into cheap space in an up-and-coming neighborhood, and their presence would be the draw — for both neighbors and outsiders from downtown and eastern neighborhoods. Research shows that small businesses, including restaurants, are just as integral to neighborhood-level revitalization as conventional institutional brokers, such as corporate capital, local government and community organizations.

But as Over the 9 -- which opened last summer -- shows, the road to revitalization isn’t a linear one, especially from the perspective of local eateries.

“The first three months that we were open, we did really well,” Hagan says. “It was insane how much business we had. We had a lot of hype, a lot of media, but I think one of the factors was that people were using it to say, ‘Oh, I made it. I did it. I went there.’ They kind of checked (coming past Ninth Street) off their list.”

The restaurant is approaching its one-year anniversary, but it has yet to turn a profit. That's not an uncommon financial situation for new, local restaurants, but it is something that Hagan monitors while traffic in their location continues to lag.

The First Wave Of New Portland

In 2014, renewed interest in Portland hit a peak. A wave of businesses announced their intentions to open in the neighborhood, like The Tim Faulkner Gallery, the Louisville Film Society, McQuixote’s Coffee, and Please and Thank You.

Local media outlets considered whether Portland would be the "next NuLu." It was an appealing prospect given the quick success of the East Market Street district, an area that was once dominated by vacant buildings and then, following investments led by Holland, transformed into one of the city’s trendiest commercial strips.

Portland is significantly larger than NuLu’s five-by-five-block area. There are more gaps in development and nearly 1,400 vacant properties. Portland also has a reputation for being dangerous -- it had the most homicides by zip code in 2014, according to Metro Police statistics -- which still deters outsiders.

Journalist Nathan Collins reported for Pacific Standard in April that the places visited by the most socially diverse crowds are also the most likely to gentrify. (Holland has called gentrification a "dirty word" in the past because it suggests displacement.)

Collins looked at research led by University of Cambridge graduate Desislava Hristova that culls data from social media “check-ins.” Computer scientists working on the project found that while areas with the most socially diverse residents were also typically home to lower-income earners, areas with the most diverse visitor “check-ins” were the most likely to gentrify. These visits hinge on there being destinations -- restaurants, bars, coffee shops -- that appeal to individuals both inside and outside the neighborhood.

In other words, gentrification doesn’t start when outsiders move in; it starts when outsiders come to visit. And for now, it appears, visitors to Portland aren’t coming with enough frequency to guarantee sustained success.

The former Hot Coffee walk-up window on 17th and Duncan streets is a prime example.

In 2014, Please and Thank You owner Brooke Vaughn announced plans to open a Portland-based commissary kitchen called Hot Coffee that would source baked goods for the shop’s other locations. She set up shop in a former Butternut Bakery building that had been renovated by Habitat for Humanity, which operates out of the neighboring building and holds the lease to the location.

In February 2015, Vaughn opened a walk-up window at the bakery, making it the only stand-alone coffee shop in the neighborhood. AsWFPL reported then, Vaughn was aware that opening in Portland carried more risk than many other neighborhoods.

“You can’t rely on that NuLu customer constantly showing up, being OK with a $5 cup of coffee,” Vaughn said at the time.

But even with a $2-a-cup price point, the shop didn't have enough customers coming to its window.

“We’ve been closed to the public for over a year,” Vaughn wrote recently via email. “Our business has had so much growth that the baking facility was a necessary step to aid that growth and open future locations. It’s been very helpful to our business.”

She continued: “We signed a 10-year lease and will be ready for Portland when Portland is ready for us.”

Trevor DeCuir is the co-owner of McQuixote’s, a coffee shop attached to the Tim Faulkner Gallery that opened in 2014. He says while many days are just dead at the coffee shop (especially during the winter months), more Portland residents are starting to visit -- and come back.

DeCuir says the business has benefited from sharing space with the bustling gallery and events venue.

“It does help that there is this whole other world back there, and that space just keeps evolving and getting better,” DeCuir says. “And we’re getting into the warmer months again, so there will be more concerts and events.”

Above all, DeCuir says, it’s important that the coffee shop was a labor of love. That helps them deal with the sluggish pace of growth and low traffic days.

“It was all out-of-pocket expenses,” DeCuir says. We didn’t borrow from any banks or any institutions at all. We definitely owe our business partner a lot of money, but that’s easier to maneuver at the end of the day.”

He says if he owed a bank money, he would be “sweating bullets over that,” but that by being independently funded, the shop has a longer window to draw customers and grow.

Similarly, Hagan says if his restaurant didn’t have independent financial backing, it “would probably fail, too.”

“Time will tell on that — you know, if we have to invest in another location," he says. "But I think we are on the cusp of something special here. It’s just going to require all parties involved to make it happen.”

Progress Possible

Despite the slow start for Portland's restaurant and coffee scene, Holland says the progress has just begun.

“The positive momentum is actually real. People are actually starting to see it,” he says. “Banks are lending a little easier now, you know, needing to place loans, and investors are starting to see that there’s something going on.”

Holland cites the Portland Investment Initiative, an organization he founded with the mission of literally buying into the neighborhood. The PII has closed on a number of properties over the last two years, including a pair recently: a 22,000 square-foot warehouse on Rowan Street and the three-acre Portland Recycling Inc. lot, which is next to the Tim Faulkner Gallery.

Holland says he wants to renovate the warehouse into a space that would appeal to a tech company, distillery or brewery, and then build up the vacant lot into mixed-use space. Having daytime workforces in Portland would help bring more business to restaurants and coffee shops, he says.

“We need more density in the neighborhood,” Holland says.

Of late, large city brands — like Heine Bros. Coffee and Louisville Visual Art — have caught on, announcing they'll be opening locations in the neighborhood. And continuing to add retail, residential and business spaces, Holland says, will help draw more traffic to the neighborhood — and from it.

Development like this is something Dan Bauer, a business professor at Bellarmine University, says could raise the chances banks will consider more loans for small-business owners looking at the neighborhood — something that's not common now.

“It’s really all about calculating risk,” Bauer says. “It’s like anything else, like buying a house, for example, where lending institutions want to know what the chance is that they’ll get their money back.”

Holland points to the success of The Table, a pay-what-you-can restaurant, as evidence that outsiders are getting more comfortable with the neighborhood.

“We’ve got no shortage of people from outside the neighborhood coming in,” says Tyler Ratliff, who works at the restaurant on North 18th Street and Portland Avenue.

The restaurant -- which is affiliated with, but a separate entity from, Church of the Promise -- is a response to the congregation’s wish to address food insecurity in the neighborhood. It came into Portland in November, a little later than the initial wave of businesses that settled there.

Ratliff says he wants The Table to appeal foremost to Portland residents, which — along with its pay model — makes it fundamentally different from the other first-wave businesses. But thanks to the steady flow of outside visitors, the restaurant has been able to expand its lunch service by an hour.

“Yesterday, we could barely handle the huge amount of people coming through,” Ratliff says. “It’s just kind of crazy.”

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