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With First Link Property, City Government Has A Big Decision

The Louisville Metro Housing Authority will likely soon own the former First Link Supermarket property that sits just east of downtown.

The city's housing authority is set to purchase the property for $3 million, The Courier-Journal reported earlier this week.

It's unclear just what will become of the property. For decades, First Link operated as a full-service grocery store. Owners recently nixed the full-service supermarket and have since been selling smokes, snacks and beer from the 47,000-square-foot space.

Tim Barry, head of the housing authority, said the agency plans to sit on the property to "protect" investments in nearby public housing structures Dosker Manor and Liberty Green.

"And make sure someone doesn't buy it and put something in there that could create problems, specifically for our site across the street, Dosker Manor, and the residents there," such as a liquor store, he said.

But the site is at a key point on the map, at the eastern edge of a downtown where the housing stock is quickly increasing, and surrounded by a food desert, where there are few -- if any -- affordable grocery options.

And for some, seeing the site sit vacant is at the bottom of the list of potential uses.

Barbara Sexton-Smith, who will likely replace David Tandy as the next Louisville Metro Council representative of District 4, which includes the First Link property, said she understands the housing authority's desire to protect their boundaries, but there needs to be a plan for redevelopment.

Keeping the site vacant, she said, turns it into "a mothball, a desert."

"I want to see big vision, I want to see evolution, I want to see innovation, I want to see compassion," she said.

As for potential uses, Sexton Smith pointed to the lack of fresh food options in the area.

The downtown area lacks a full-service grocery store. There is a Kroger on Second Street just south of downtown that's for sale. But Sexton Smith said many residents in Dosker Manor and Liberty Green lack transportation, and turning the First Link site back into a grocery or a site where people could buy fresh food would be a boon for the area.

"That's a humane thing to do," she said. "How is it that we can have roughly $6 billion of economic development going on in downtown Louisville ... and we've got folks that are not going to have a basic human right, and that's access to food."

Cassia Herron echoed that.

Herron is organizing an effort to bring a food cooperative to the downtown area. She said the First Link site is prime real estate for such a concept.

"There is already a population of people who are there and who are not served," she said.

Just last week, developers of the planned $53 million West Louisville FoodPort announced the project is being terminated due to the loss of a key tenant. Herron said while the local need for fresh food may not match the ambition of the foodport, there is a still a market for an aggregation of available food.

Mixed-Use Development?

The First Link Supermarket was in business for more than 70 years, and there is a full-service meat processing plant in the basement.

Herron said people are already accustomed to food being available at the site. And while the group of residents pushing for a food cooperative isn't ready to settle on a single property to house their concept, Herron said they're willing to put the First Link site at the top of the list.

Councilman Tandy said the site is ripe for a mixed-use development. When asked, he said a year-round indoor farmers market there is "worth taking a look at." And, he added, one idea does not preclude another.

"There is a whole host of options that could go there that could continue the development and growth of that portion of the downtown area," he said.

Barry said developing the site as a grocery store or a farmers market -- or some other mixed-use development -- are all good ideas. But it's too early to speculate about potential projects, he said.

In an interview Wednesday, Mayor Greg Fischer didn't offer any specifics about what he'd like to see become of the First Link site.

"It's great to have the option to develop that piece of property in any way that's best for the city," he said.

Sexton Smith, who is running unopposed in the November general election to replace Tandy, said the most important thing is to ask nearby residents what they want.

"What is it that they need," she said. "If people are being left out, we have to fix that."

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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