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Talk About Revitalizing West Louisville Strikes Familiar Tones

west louisville economic development forum

Kevin Fields stood in a ballroom on the sixth floor of the Muhammad Ali Center in downtown Louisville on Friday clicking through PowerPoint slides.

His presentation focused on the potential and importance of economic development in western Louisville, a section of the city plagued with high poverty, low employment, crime and a negative stigma.

Slides flashed on the screen showing maps of neighborhoods, stats on household income and lots of ideas for revitalization.

For Fields, who's worked toward improving West Louisville for nearly 30 years, ideas are nothing new. The same goes for many people in the room who watched his presentation. The crowd was a mix of city officials, community leaders, private developers and scholars who research the concept of urban development.

They gathered at the Ali Center, in a room with sweeping views across western Louisville, to discuss the future of the city's struggling West End.

Fields said the key to getting more investment in neighborhoods like Russell, Shawnee, Chickasaw and Park DuValle is the flow of capital.

"Follow the money," he said. "Does it go east or does it go west?"

Historically, of course, it's gone east.

It's Going to Take (More) Time

The call to bring economic development into Louisville's westernmost neighborhoods is nothing new. For years, residents, business owners and community leaders have bemoaned the lack of investment in neighborhoods west of Ninth Street.

Countless forums, panel discussions and community conversations have centered on this theme -- bringing change to West Louisville. Yet still, nearly six decades after urban renewal decimated the city's Walnut Street corridor, which once boasted dozens of flourishing African American-owned businesses, the westernmost swath of Louisville is still struggling to attract developers.

Depressed property values and difficulty in getting loans add to the struggle facing developers interested in investing in West Louisville, said Mary Ellen Wiederwohl, the city’s chief economic development officer. The cost of work needing to be done in West Louisville is “hundreds of millions of dollars,” she said.

“It’s going to a little time to get where we want to be,” she said.

Getting there will take a lot of work, Wiederwohl said, that cannot be completed without partnerships between city government, developers and residents.

City officials play their role by offering incentives that can attract developers. Wiederwohl said one of the best ways to spark investment in western Louisville is to offer wage incentives to companies who expand there.

When a company expands in western neighborhoods, she said, they often bring new life into an old building. That, coupled with the allure of boosting employment and providing people with more opportunities, is a grand slam when it comes to revitalization. Property tax incentives can also help developers looking to add housing or mixed-use space to the area, she said.

But developers and stakeholders interested in moving forward with an idea are oftentimes unaware of such opportunities.

Jeana Dunlap, the city’s newly tapped director of redevelopment strategies, said she would spend the next few years focused on funneling resources into neighborhoods in need of investment — notably Russell, which Fields called the “gateway to West Louisville.”

In past years, city officials have spread investments too thinly across the city, Dunlap said.

“We really can’t afford to do that anymore,” she said. “We’ve got to be effective in leveraging our resources, sort of pinpointing where we want to see those results.”

That means it’s likely city investments would be focused on one neighborhood at a time, Dunlap said. And right now, that’s Russell.

Russell is bounded by Ninth Street to the east, 32nd Street to the west, Broadway to the south and Market Street to the north.

The neighborhood, named for educator Harvey C. Russell, became the city’s premier African-American neighborhood by the 1940s, according to the Encyclopedia of Louisville. But people began abandoning the area following World War II, leaving a stock of abandoned homes that would soon be leveled during urban renewal.

Now, the area is pocked with poverty, crime and vacant property. A strong effort is underway to shore up federal funding that would allow a multimillion-dollar renovation of the neighborhood, including the razing of the decades-old Beecher Terrace housing complex and the addition of mixed-use space throughout.

Dunlap said a key to the revitalization, as with any effort to improve and sustain a neighborhood, is investment. And not just financial investment, either. She said residents need to commit their time, energy and attention to their community.

“We need everybody in every block advocating for their block,” she said. “That’s what gets you that critical mass that you need, that makes it more stable and more attractive for newcomers to come and invest in your neighborhood, too.”

The Cost of Believing

The recent announcement that plans for the West Louisville FoodPort would be cancelled surprised many.

Caroline Heine is co-founder of Seed Capital KY and helped lead the project that, had it gone as planned, would have culminated in a $53 million investment on the western part of Russell.

The FoodPort would have brought jobs, opportunity and resources to a plot of land that is, at present, a thicket of overgrown grass and busted concrete.

Looking back, she said it was a complex project focused on a nascent industry. And when she thinks about the impediments that exist to make development difficult in west Louisville, Heine said she points to the community.

“It’s a big community, it’s not a homogenous community, not everyone thinks the same,” she said.

The FoodPort had support from the community. It also had critics.

Some residents pushed back against the project for general reasons. Some were successful in getting Heine and other developers to nix plans to add a methane biodigester on the site.

The loss of that element also meant the loss of capital in the project. Heine said pushback can be a challenge, but it shouldn’t be tuned out. And although her group’s project ended abruptly, she doesn’t want it to serve as an example for future development efforts in western Louisville.

Fields said any idea for redevelopment needs neighbors to believe it can happen.

“If there’s a low expectation, if there is any ounce of doubt that these visionary ideas are feasible, they never happen,” he said.

He’s been to a lot of forums, heard a lot of talk and seen a lot of head-nodding for ideas about revitalizing West Louisville. But doesn't often see people truly, fully believing change is possible.

Fields said not investing in West Louisville presents a greater risk than actually taking a chance on a project on the other side of Ninth Street.

“Without real change, you can expect more decline,” he said.

But change can’t come without capital. And Fields said the current investment trend in Louisville isn’t directed westward.

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