Molina Healthcare purchases west Louisville site previously meant for Passport headquarters
On Louisville’s busy Broadway corridor, connecting residents to homes and businesses across more than five miles, a towering construction project wastes away.
The former site of a Philip Morris tobacco plant now hosts the rusting infrastructure of a project once promised to strengthen west Louisville, which has historically suffered through disinvestment driven by racist policies.
Benea Durrett has run Essentially Unique Salon across the street for two years. She said the abandoned site is a problem for the community.
“It’s definitely an eyesore. It doesn’t look appealing. It doesn’t state that we can take pride in west Louisville as far as development,” she said
Now, the long-vacant West End property has a new owner years after the latest project fell apart.
Molina Healthcare finalized its purchase of the 20 acres of vacant property on Broadway between Dixie Highway and Dr W. J. Hodge Street in November. The for-profit company is based in Long Beach, California, and operates the Kentucky Medicare and Medicaid provider Passport Health Plan by Molina, so named after taking over the brand in 2020.
Passport was previously a nonprofit organization. In 2019, it was bought by the consulting firm Evolent Health. The next year, Molina spent $20 million to purchase some of Passport’s property and assets, including its brand and operations, after Passport failed to get a contract with the state.
That July, a representative for Molina said the company would separately buy the west Louisville property at 18th and Broadway. It finally completed the deal last month by purchasing the land from a subsidiary of Evolent for $8 million, according to deed records.
Passport is one of Kentucky’s managed care organizations, which provide Medicaid services to residents. States can use them to lower operating costs and strengthen management of the federal health insurance program.
In September, the state’s Court of Appeals upheld Molina’s contract with the Commonwealth, as well as a lower court’s ruling that its takeover of Passport’s clients was lawful.
Executive Ryan Sadler said in a November press release the company would collect feedback from city and community leaders for the site.
“Our state and local partners have challenged us to think beyond the needs of our own company, to help make this property a vibrant place,” Sadler said.
A Molina representative declined to provide further comment on the acquisition and specific plans for the site.
Democratic Metro Council member Jecorey Arthur of District 4, which includes 18th and Broadway, said he was part of a December community meeting held by Molina to discuss the site’s future.
As a lifelong West End resident, he said he’s excited by the purchase.
“Even though it, historically for me in the past several years, has been a sign of broken promises, I think now it's really more of a sign of hope,” Arthur said.
A lack of progress
The west Louisville site has not been actively used since Philip Morris moved out in 2000. A mixed-use development called NewBridge Crossing was planned years later, though nothing came of it.
Walmart announced in 2014 it was interested in using the land for a store and received nearly $2 million in financial support from the city. But that plan was abandoned after two years after pressure from local preservationists who opposed the “suburban-style” design that included a large parking lot.
In 2017, Passport said it was planning to use the site to create a campus including the company’s headquarters. At the time, officials and community leaders praised the $130 million development as a way to bring jobs and spur investment in the area.
But the group stalled construction efforts in early 2019 as it challenged changes to Kentucky’s Medicaid reimbursement formula, which heavily decreased rates in Louisville. A large portion of Passport’s clients lived in the city, leading to concerns about Passport’s financial viability.
Passport was then dropped twice as a state Medicaid provider: once as Republican Gov. Matt Bevin prepared to leave office, and again soon after, when his successor, Democrat Andy Beshear, restarted the state’s MCO bid process. Meanwhile, Molina Healthcare did receive a contract, which paved the way for them to eventually take over the Passport brand.
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer acknowledged the site’s troubled history but expressed support for the new ownership.
“We are enthusiastic about Molina Healthcare’s next steps in the long-awaited effort to bring this vacant site back into productive use with the input and needs of the community top of mind,” Fischer said, according to the November press release.
Visions for success
Jeff O’Brien, who heads the city’s economic development agency, said in an emailed statement earlier this month that further city involvement would depend on a proposal from Molina. The city previously spent nearly $2 million to help Walmart acquire the site for its unsuccessful store.
“Without seeing a specific plan we cannot yet say what role Louisville Metro Government may [play] in these new efforts to revitalize this vacant site,” O’Brien said.
Arthur said he’s heard a variety of ideas for the site, including using it for health care, affordable and sustainable housing and recreation needs, and incorporating small businesses and nonprofits.
But he added people have mainly said they want local residents to have their voices heard and utilized, which he hopes they will do by sharing their thoughts with Molina.
“More than anything, the theme that I've heard from everyone, no matter what their interests are, is that this is a community space. It’s not just a space for a private health care company, but it's something that community members can walk into and have access to and feel like they have some ownership in,” Arthur said.
Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Marty Pollio said at a July school board meeting his district was interested in using the land to create a middle school, and was talking with Molina about it. In 2021 workers broke ground on a new JCPS elementary school close by.
A JCPS spokesperson declined to comment on potential plans for the 18th and Broadway site.
Durrett said her business and others near the site could benefit from the exposure of another school, even though it could lead to traffic and safety concerns.
She said she hopes whatever happens to the unutilized space includes opportunities for small business owners like herself.
“Broadway in west Louisville is supposed to be a staple part of the community,” Durrett said.
While some projects on 18th and Broadway have struggled, one development at that intersection has delivered success: The Republic Bank Foundation YMCA, which is planned to connect to JCPS’s new elementary school, opened in late 2019 as part of a push for west Louisville development projects.