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Demise Of West Louisville FoodPort Brings Mixed Reactions

20160818_Food Port_3

The grass in the vacant lot across from Bill Jones' West Louisville muffler shop doesn't get cut too often.

The empty plot of land -- a mix of weeds, crumbling concrete and busted glass -- was last trimmed earlier this year, as excitement grew over plans to develop a $53 million local food hub.

The West Louisville Foodport, once slated for the 24-acre site at the corner of 30th Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard, was intended to spur the local food economy and bring new jobs and economic activity to western Louisville. It was a key part of Mayor Greg Fischer’s revitalization plans for the city’s western neighborhoods, areas plagued by high poverty, unemployment, and vacant and abandoned properties.

But developers announced Wednesday they are scrapping the project after a key tenant backed out, souring the project's financing model.

For some residents and business owners, like Jones, the news isn't a surprise.

"City government promises the West End everything -- they don't deliver on anything," Jones said, standing in the office of his garage at the corner of 30th and West Market streets.

He's operated the shop for more than 40 years. During that time, he's seen the neighborhood go from boom to bust.

Jones remembers when National Tobacco Company owned the site across the street and employed some 2,000 people. He said workers' vehicles would fill the parking lot. Those workers would spend money in bars and restaurants in the neighborhood -- and at his muffler shop, too.

Now, that's gone.

And when he looks at the proposed projects for West Louisville -- from a new Walmart and a YMCA to the expansion of Waterfront Park and the FoodPort -- he sees little but delays and deferred priorities.

Ask Jones to name the last large-scale investment that came to fruition in West Louisville, and he takes a long pause.

"The only thing I can think of are ideas to improve the neighborhood that never seem to pan out," he said.

Stephen Reily, a principal developer of the FoodPort, spoke to that sentiment in a statement on Wednesday.

"We are grateful for [neighbors'] willingness to invest time and belief in this project, and hope this experience will help us all support the many responsible development projects West Louisville needs," he said.

Site's Future Again Unclear

Mayor Greg Fischer remained upbeat Thursday morning as he took reporters' questions about the collapse of the West Louisville Foodport.

Fischer said the project was "an exclamation point" on the city's burgeoning food scene. Efforts to revitalize areas -- in West Louisville generally and Russell specifically -- won't end with its failure, he said.

The plot of land will likely be deeded back to the city, and officials will again try to find someone interested in developing on the site, Fischer said.

The mayor said a key product of the planning phase is a community council made up of more than 100 residents. That group has pledged to continue meeting to ensure "however that land is used can help all of Louisville and, in particular West Louisville."

Amanda Peer is on that council.

Peer, 27, lives a few blocks from the site. She said she's saddened by the project's demise.

"It just seems hopeless, and I don't want to be hopeless," she said. "Who else is going to take the time and effort to do that and reach out to the community after it feels like some people have treated them really poorly."
Last year, Seed Capital Kentucky  canceled plans for an anaerobic digester — which converts food waste into methane gas — in the face of community opposition. And last week, the project encountered a new round of skepticism after The Courier-Journal reported that Fischer’s administration was seeking to use a $7 million federal loan for the FoodPort.

Peer said the food hub would have been a boon for Russell. Presently, the area has scant options for fresh food. And when it comes to dining, there's little beyond fast food.

"That's a quality-of-life thing," she said.

Peer still wants to see something developed at the site. Just what that is, though, she isn't sure. Green space, a playground or a grocery store would all be welcome sights, she said.

And while she said it seems hopeless to see project after project planned for West Louisville fail or stall, she's still hopeful someone will turn the blighted plot at 30th and West Market streets into something viable.

Monique Sweat, who lives on across the street from the site, said the end of the FoodPort is a blow to the neighborhood.

Sweat, 48, said her family welcomed the project. She was excited to have such easy access to fresh food and to no longer have a swath of abandoned land outside her front door.

"We wanted that," she said. "Jobs, different cultures, food."

It's discouraging, she said, to see promises fall apart.

"Another opportunity lost," she said.

Jacob Ryan joined LPM in 2014. Ryan is originally from Eddyville, Kentucky. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.