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In The Middle Of The New Soccer Stadium Site, Homeless Louisvillians Make Their Lives

Campbell homeless camp

Michael Beam has bad days and good.

Most days, though, are bad. He has colon cancer. He's in pain, and he can't afford the medication he needs. Cancer killed his mother and father, and he fears his time is coming sooner than it should.

"It's pretty rough," he said. "But I'm holding my own."

Beam's life has challenges. Beyond cancer, the 53-year-old struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder. His three closest friends killed themselves with gunshots to the head.

"It haunts me," he said.

In time, he'll likely face another challenge: finding a place to live.

On Wednesday, officials with the Louisville City FC pro soccer team announced plans to turn a 40-acre plot of land just east of downtown into a sprawling mixed-use development with shops, restaurants and a 10,000-seat soccer stadium.

They billed the plan as one of the city's most significant development projects in recent memory.

"A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said John Hollenbach, who sits on the soccer team's board of directors.

Hollenbach joined a group of investors Wednesday to announce the plans. They stood on the corner of Campbell and Adams streets in Butchertown, at the edge of the development site, fielding questions and sharing jokes with reporters about the plan.

The press event could be seen from "Campbell Camp," the small encampment where Beam and a half-dozen or so other people live.

Beam spends his nights and most of his days in the small camp at the end of the path that trails off Campbell Street and over the train tracks. The camp is in the center of the property the investors want to develop, and it'll likely be destroyed as the project advances.

"I'd like to see it stay as a homeless camp," Beam said. "But if they want to turn it into a soccer field, more power to them."

Team's Ambitions Hinge on Stadium

Soccer fans and team officials have dreamed of a stadium since the team was introduced to Louisville two years ago.

At present, the United Soccer League club plays home games at Slugger Field. That arrangement, however, is costly and not sustainable for the team's longevity.

A multi-month, taxpayer-funded study by the firm HOK last year found the team suffered a $700,000 loss during its inaugural 2015 season. The loss was due, in part, to the fiscal responsibilities of playing at the baseball field.

A soccer-specific stadium is critical if the team wants to eventually move up to Major League Soccer, something city officials and team investors aspire to do. And a stadium is required by 2020 if they want to continue playing in their current league.

While it's not yet certain a stadium will be built at the Butchertown site, securing the land is a good first step, said John Neace, chairman of the team's board of directors. He said the project would be a public-private partnership, with some financing coming from local and state governments.

Locally, investors will look to Louisville Metro government to purchase the land, clear it and prepare the site for development, and then return it to the team for the construction, said Mike Mountjoy, a board member.

Today, the site is a mix of individual parcels that house an auto junkyard, a storage facility, a large tank facility and other industrial buildings.

From the state, investors will seek approval to deem the site a tax increment financing district -- or TIF -- which would allow developers to regain a portion of newly generated tax revenue once the project is completed, Mountjoy said.

He expects the project to yield up to $100 million in new revenue for the state; up to $35 million of that would be returned to the developer via the TIF. Newly generated local taxes would remain with the city government, he added.

Such tax incentives play a key role in many development projects around downtown Louisville, including the KFC Yum! Center and the Omni Hotel and Residences.

Neace said the project cannot be completed without public assistance.

"We need support," he said. "But we are not here asking the city or the state to give us a stadium to play in."

In a statement, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said such a project brings "enormous potential and promise." But he was quick to caution that the deal is not yet final and "there are many steps involved in making the project a reality."

Fischer said the project hinges on the ability of team officials to secure "significant private capital and appropriate state assistance."

“When those conditions are met, we will work with Metro Council to move the project forward," he said.

'We Certainly Don't Want To Displace Anyone'

Beam paced through the camp early Wednesday morning, unaware of the plans to construct the stadium at the site where he's lived for nearly a year. He's not sure where he'd go if he's forced to leave the camp.

The city's homeless population has declined in recent years, but thousands remain on the streets and in shelters across Louisville, according to the latest homeless census conducted by the Coalition for the Homeless.

Natalie Harris, executive director of the coalition, said local shelters would welcome anyone displaced by the project. But, she added, those shelters would likely need additional public and private support to accommodate more people.

Beam said he has tried life in a shelter, but he didn't like it. Getting off the street and into housing is taking time, he said. Public housing is his aim, but he's not sure how much longer he'll have to wait.

Asked if the investors had given any thought to the camp, Hollenbach said the group would "work closely with the city on all those issues."

"We certainly don't want to displace anyone," he said.

A spokesman for Fischer's office did not respond to a request for comment.

For Beam, the camp isn't the worst place to be. It's quiet and peaceful, and the people who live there respect each other, he said.

But it's a camp, Beam said. The summers are hot and the winters are harsh. His life is a tent on a patch of dirt in the woods behind a junkyard.

It's no place to live, he said. And still, it's home.

Jacob Ryan is an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.