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Louisville Gardens soundstage proposal could be a boon for local film

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Stephanie Wolf
Louisville Public Media
The Louisville Gardens has sat empty since 2008.

An iconic downtown Louisville building that’s been collecting dust for more than a decade could become a hub of activity again.

Louisville Metro Government announced Friday that Mayor Greg Fischer signed a letter of intent with River City Entertainment Group, LLC, which intends to renovate Louisville Gardens into soundstages for film, television, music and digital production.

“This place, Louisville Gardens, holds a really special place in Louisville history,” Fischer said Friday during a press conference.

Built in 1905, Louisville Gardens was initially an armory, then a live entertainment venue, hosting concerts with the likes of Elvis, Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra. It also was the location of events and rallies with figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and legendary boxer Muhammad Ali. In 1980, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Fischer spoke of the “electricity and excitement” thinking about the people who have stepped foot into the building.

“It was a place for people to gather, to rally for a cause, to listen to some of the greatest artists of all time and just have a good time,” he continued.

The final show at Louisville Gardens was My Morning Jacket in 2006, according to a fact sheet provided by Louisville Metro Government. And it’s been largely vacant the last decade plus, with the city using it for storage since 2008.

City officials sought proposals for its redevelopment for years, but the various projects brought forward never came to fruition.

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Stephanie Wolf
Louisville Public Media
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer gives a press conference at Louisville Gardens on Dec. 9, 2022. He says redevelopment this building has been a goal of his administration's for years.

“One of the first things I saw was that this was not a rundown building, it was something that needed attention,” said Tony Guanci, a principal with the group renovating Louisville Gardens.

Guanci, who founded an independent record label and is vice chairman of festival promoter Danny Wimmer Presents, said he learned about Louisville Gardens years ago and has a long interest in redeveloping it. It was an article in the Courier Journal last year about 502 Film, a local collective of film professionals that works as sort of concierge for productions coming to Kentucky, that got the gears turning on converting the property into a place for film and TV, he said.

“We hope to bring a new industry to the city,” Guanci said at Friday’s press conference. “We think it's here already. It just needs to be spurred on and helped, and that's what we intend to do.”

That help comes in the form of four soundstages, totaling about 40,000 square feet of production space that would be impenetrable from outside noises, said Scott Hodgkins, also with River City Entertainment Group, LLC. Plans also include a black box theater for live events and band rehearsals, office space, and a museum to preserve the history of the building.

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Stephanie Wolf
Louisville Public Media
The interior of the Louisville Gardens' 5,000-seat arena as seen on Dec. 9, 2022.

Hodgkins said they also intend to restore the building’s exterior to its Jefferson County Armory days – architecture firm Gensler has been named for the project. He estimated investing at least $60 million into reviving Louisville Gardens.

He gave a timeline of roughly 180 days to nail down budgets and logistics. This is the “initial diligence” phase, as spelled out in the agreement between Louisville Metro and River City Entertainment Group, LLC. They can extend this period another 180 days.

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Stephanie Wolf
Louisville Public Media
A rendering of a proposed soundstage from architecture firm Gensler.

The Courier Journal reports that developers say the Louisville Gardens project is dependent on securing more funding, and incentives will be a critical factor in getting over the finish line.

Hodgkins said he expects the construction phase to last approximately three years. When all is said and done, he anticipates about 50 to 100 “well-paid permanent jobs.”

The state approved $700,000 in state and local job creation incentives for the project during a Kentucky Economic Development Finance Authority Board meeting Thursday, as first reported by WDRB News.

“I want to be clear, this is not a ‘build-it-and-they-will-come project,” Fischer said. “Filmmakers and production crews are already coming to our city.”

Driving film and TV crews to Louisville and Kentucky are, in part, the state’s revamped film incentives.

During the 2021 state legislative session, lawmakers boosted Kentucky’s controversial film tax credit program, making it refundable again and capping total incentives at $75 million annually. They also changed how the program would operate, including moving its oversight from the Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet to the Economic Development Cabinet. A year ago, cabinet officials clarified and tightened regulations in hopes to avoid some of the past controversy the incentives program has faced, including leaving approved, yet unclaimed, funds on the books for projects never completed in Kentucky and a lack of transparency about the process.

Film incentives, as a whole, have long had their fair share of critics, and opponents of Kentucky’s program, including the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, have said they are overgenerous and don’t yield a return on the state's investment.

Soozie Eastman, president of 502 Film and chair of the Louisville Film Commission, told WFPL News she was “absolutely thrilled” about Louisville Gardens becoming a film, music and digital production house.

“I think that this is probably the most exciting news that I've ever been a part of as it relates to the film industry,” said Eastman, who is also a filmmaker.

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Stephanie Wolf
Louisville Public Media
Soozie Eastman, president of 502 Film and chair of the Louisville Film Commission, does an Instagram Live following a press conference at the Louisville Gardens on Dec. 9, 2022.

Eastman was happy to see the film incentives program moved to the Economic Development Cabinet, saying it gives the program more stability. She added that the revived incentives, which went into effect Jan. 1, 2022, have already caught the attention of Hollywood.

She believes the one-stop-shop local infrastructure envisioned in the Louisville Gardens plans will be a big draw for big-budget productions. But it will also be a boon for the local film community.

“Something like this building, something like this facility, these studios, that is a far more permanent infrastructure win for all of us because it will be here in perpetuity, it will be here year after year and people can start banking on creating a home here, a production home, a creative home,” Eastman said.