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COVID-19 relief funds fuel west Louisville land deal mired in speculation, corruption concerns

A red brick building with boarded windows on an empty street
Jacob Ryan
/
LPM
The 1700 block of West Market Street is where a local nonprofit plans to erect a bustling jobs training center. It recently purchased land there for much more than a city agency said it's worth.

One of Louisville Metro’s largest allocations from the American Rescue Plan Act went to an organization that wants to use it for a health care training center. A lack of city oversight created an opportunity for a former official with no ties to the project to profit.

Dave Christopher Sr. scoured the city for a spot to build his nonprofit’s new training center.

Christopher, the executive director of local nonprofit AMPED, needed a place big enough to fit an 18,000-square-foot building with a parking lot, playground and child care center. And since the nonprofit would primarily be training Black and Latinx residents for entry-level health care jobs, he wanted the development to be in the city’s predominantly Black West End.

He found it in the Portland neighborhood on a block that borders Russell and features a derelict former store and a string of empty lots.

Property records show Christopher bought five lots on the 1700 block of West Market Street this year for $309,860. The price was based on “tax assessments and conversations with property owners,” according to a federal COVID-19 relief grant agreement approved by Louisville Metro officials.

The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting found the sale price is more than three times the assessed value of the land, which the Jefferson County Property Valuation Administration determines.

One of the sellers, a former top city official named Yvette Gentry, said she’d planned to develop the lot a few years earlier and wanted AMPED to rent space. But the plans didn't work out.

Records show Gentry and the other owners never renovated an existing structure or built anything on the land. Still, they made thousands of dollars in profit when they sold to Christopher.

The real estate deals highlight the delicate balance between progress and profiteering in the West End, local legislators and housing advocates said. They also worry that gleaming development projects in the area — AMPED’s, and others like a new hospital, a track and field complex and various nonprofit headquarters — contribute to a rise in property values in west Louisville neighborhoods.

Their concern isn’t misplaced. Home values in the West End increased by an average of about 60%, according to a reassessment conducted this year by the PVA, a KyCIR analysis found.

As the property values balloon, experts fear displacement is likely to follow.

Christopher bought the land with the promise of millions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief funds. The United States government pumped billions into cities across the country to help bolster economic recovery post-pandemic. Louisville got $388 million.

Metro Council members set aside $9 million for AMPED’s training center on West Market. But Christopher hasn’t got the money yet.

Caitlin Bowling, a spokesperson for the team of city officials who reviewed and approved AMPED’s project, said no COVID-19 relief has yet been paid to the nonprofit to reimburse the land purchase costs. To get the federal money, she said AMPED must provide receipts and other documents to show the prices paid were appropriate and the money wasn’t misused.

The perception — and realities — of abuse and waste in the federal government’s COVID-19 relief programs help erode public trust, said Michael Munger, a professor of political science at Duke University. He said the sheer amount of money, coupled with broad rules about how it can be used and a mandate to spend quickly, disincentivized oversight.

Munger said the AMPED purchase is small relative to the billions in the federal grant package. But he said it’s an example of the “corrosive” dealing that makes people lose faith in the government.

“Capitalism means that prices change all the time and people make money that they don't deserve. That's frustrating,” he said. “The problem is when people misuse public trust and public funds — in this case, as just a way to create value.”

A path to profit

AMPED started out nearly a decade ago offering music education programs for kids. Over time, the nonprofit added data analytics training and in 2021 launched a business incubator for Black and Latinx entrepreneurs.

With the COVID-19 relief funds, the nonprofit promises to train about 400 people in “health tech” jobs that pay at least $41,000 a year on average, according to the grant agreement. The work will be based at the development on West Market Street, called the Russell Station Technology and Learning Center.

A digital rendering of a modern, flat-roofed building on a street with trees, people and a few cars.
AMPED Inc.
A rendering of AMPED's planned development on West Market Street.

“We have a crisis, not just in the lack of health care workers and the shortage of workers in technology, but we also have a poverty issue,” Christopher told Metro Council members last November.

He sees the project as a solution to those problems.

“We’re talking about putting money into the pockets of people in the community,” Christopher said.

A bespectacled man in a gray jacket and white shirt speaks at a lectern.
Zach Sinclair
/
Submitted
Dave Christopher Sr., the founder and executive director of AMPED, in July 2023.

His is one of 75 local projects to receive American Rescue Plan Act funds since 2021. Louisville Metro Council approved a slew of plans, ranging from promises to build more affordable housing to providing equipment for local child care facilities.

AMPED’s development is nested in a broader project that got unanimous approval.

Christopher spent months assembling the land, a dozen lots acquired by purchase and donation. The nonprofit leases a city-owned building in the Chickasaw neighborhood and owns a separate building at 26th and Broadway, but neither could accommodate the ambitious demands of the Russell Station project. The city’s building was too small and AMPED’s was too old, according to records obtained by KyCIR.

He settled on the 1700 block of West Market Street because it had the space to build. It also has historical significance as the site of the Hub department store, a staple of the West End that provided families with Easter outfits and other fine garments until it closed more than a decade ago.

AMPED’s complex will span nearly half the block, according to renderings and official descriptions.

If successful, the project could deliver a renovation developers have imagined — and attempted — for years.

Dorian Burton, a North Carolina-based venture capitalist, promised in 2019 he would spend more than a million dollars building a restaurant, coworking space and outdoor event venue.

At the time, Burton was also working for a nonprofit from North Carolina called the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust that gives millions of dollars a year in grants to organizations for projects that address issues like poverty, education and community-building.

The trust has invested thousands in Louisville-based nonprofits, including $250,000 in grants to AMPED from 2017 to 2019, and a $50,000 grant in 2020 to the Rajon Rondo Foundation, which Yvette Gentry led at the time.

In 2018, Kenan gave $5 million in seed funding for a new group that’s focused on revitalizing the Russell neighborhood, which has a 60% poverty rate. Soon after, Burton started investing through his firm, Paraquel Capital.

“When I came to town, I think it was more so like, ‘Hey, you want to do something good, put your own, personal money where your mouth is.' That's where we really tried to lean in,” he said in an interview last October.

First, he paid $70,000 to buy two lots in 2019 from a local artist and professor. A few months later, he bought six other lots for $3,200 from the Louisville Metro land bank, which sells properties to buyers who promise to renovate and reuse vacant and abandoned spaces.

He told land bank officials he’d transform the block within six months. He didn’t.

A police chief and property investor

In March 2020, Burton sold three lots for a total of $1 to a company managed by Yvette Gentry, property records show.

Gentry spent more than two decades rising through the ranks of the Louisville Metro Police Department, then she led the city’s Youth Detention Services and oversaw several other departments as Chief of Community Building.

She left city government in 2017 to work for local nonprofits, but returned to the police department in September 2020 when former Mayor Greg Fischer tapped her to be interim chief.

Gentry became the first Black woman to lead LMPD, taking the role as the city grappled with racial justice protests following the police killing of Breonna Taylor.

By then, she was already in the process of collecting land on the 1700 block of West Market. A few months before her company, Village Lives LLC, acquired the lots from Burton, she bought a foreclosed parcel on the block from the Jefferson County Master Commissioner’s auction. She bought another lot from the auction in 2021. Another man, a longtime deputy with the Jefferson County Sheriff named Theodore Mitchell, bought one from the auction, too.

Asked why he bought the lots, Mitchell said, “I just had an opportunity.”

A woman in a black sleeveless shirt smiles past the camera.
Jacob Ryan
/
LPM
Yvette Gentry in 2015, when she was working for city government.

In all, Gentry and Mitchell paid $11,500 for five lots on the block, according to online property records maintained by the Jefferson County Clerk.

Then, earlier this year, they sold the land to Christopher in a pair of transactions for a collective cost of $309,860, property records show.

Gentry, who works for LDG Development as director of resident and community safety, said there “were no improprieties” with the land deals and said the price Christopher paid was a bargain. She said she could have sold the land for more than $600,000.

“Easy,” she said.

She said she started buying land on the block because she wanted to ensure it didn’t get bought up by “some fatty with deep pockets and no ties to Louisville.”

The documents maintained by the Jefferson County Clerk don’t tell the whole story about how much money she and a group of investors actually paid for the lots before selling it to AMPED, Gentry said.

One deed shows her company acquired 1701, 1703 and 1705 West Market in 2020 for $1, but Gentry said she paid more than $78,000 for the lots.

Kentucky state law mandates the full price paid for real estate be reflected in the deed that’s filed with the county clerk. Attesting to the wrong sale price is a felony that carries a penalty of up to five years in prison.

Gentry said she doesn’t know why the deed lists the sale price as $1. Burton, the venture capitalist, signed the deed on behalf of Gentry’s LLC and listed himself as a member of the company.

Burton did not respond to multiple requests for a follow-up interview for this report. He sold the six lots he bought from the land bank to AMPED for $1 in June, property records show.

Gentry said she partnered with Burton and wanted to develop the block. She secured a $1.1 million construction loan, but the group never started the work after running into a variety of issues like break-ins and overall expense, she said.

In the end, Gentry said they invested more than $190,000 in the properties for insurance, grass cutting, surveys, repairs and loan payments. She declined to provide records to detail the expenditures.

Rear of vacant building on 1700 block West Market
Jacob Ryan
/
LPM
The department store at the corner of West Market Street and South 17th Street closed more than 10 years ago.

When Gentry’s group and Mitchell sold the parcels earlier this year, she said there was less than $65,000 in total profit, and she got about half of that.

“Which is ridiculous,” she said. “I should have made a lot more than that.”

‘It’s messed up’

The Russell Station training center will be the nucleus of a broader $40 million project by the Louisville Healthcare CEO Council that aims to train more than 3,000 entry-level health care workers and help launch at least seven companies focused on health care through entrepreneurship programs.

That project is already under scrutiny because Metro Council Member Anthony Piagentini, a District 19 Republican, is accused of breaking local ethics laws. He took a job with the CEO Council immediately after helping get the spending plan approved without disclosing his ties to the nonprofit.

Tammy York Day, the president and chief executive officer of the Healthcare CEO Council, did not respond to a request for comment.

Christopher said the allegations against Piagentini are “political nonsense and sensationalism” and he worries they put the entire $40 million project in jeopardy.

Graphic that says, "Louisville's 'American Rescue Plan' funds $388m --> Louisville Healthcare CEO Council $40m --> AMPED's Russell Station project $9m --> property acquisition $309,860"
Justin Hicks
/
LPM

Metro Council members first vetted AMPED’s proposal last fall.

In December, legislators unanimously approved funding the Louisville Healthcare CEO Council venture, which contained the Russell Station plan. Then the Louisville Accelerator Team, a group of city officials that oversee COVID-19 relief projects, conducted a more in-depth review of the AMPED project specifically to ensure it aligned with federal grant funding policies.

The federal rules tied to the funds don’t require recipients to get a private appraisal, which is a different metric to determine value than a tax assessment. Christopher didn’t give an appraisal to city officials before he bought the land. His budget proposal included the property purchase, but no specifics about how they settled on the price.

Two weeks before approving the project, in March, a city official indicated they needed more detail about the land costs, according to emails obtained by KyCIR through an open records request. But Louisville Metro records officers said they had no relevant documents in response to a KyCIR request for anything Christopher submitted that detailed how the land costs were calculated. Christopher wouldn’t discuss it with KyCIR, and city officials didn’t either.

A snapshot of an email from city officials about AMPED's COVID-19 project.
Louisville Metro Government
A snapshot of an email from city officials about AMPED's COVID-19 project.

Christopher said in a statement in February that Louisville Metro Council members scrutinized and studied the project and it “passed each and every test.”

Council members, however, said they didn’t know how much of the federal grant the nonprofit would use to buy land.

Metro Council President Markus Winkler, a District 17 Democrat, said they don’t go into that level of detail when they consider a spending plan and he had no idea how much AMPED would spend on land.

Jecorey Arthur, a District 4 Independent, said lawmakers, including him, should have asked more questions and done more “due diligence” before approving the project.

Arthur helped establish AMPED in 2015 and today lives a few blocks from the project site. He said spending more than $300,000 on the land was “extreme.”

“I don’t know how they would have come to that number,” he said. “It's messed up to think that we used coronavirus relief funding for a project and it seemed like they took more than they needed or somebody was profiting on top of it.”

‘Like insider trading’

As the proposal worked through a council committee last fall, Arthur said he worried the development would be a catalyst for displacement by pushing up nearby housing and land costs.

“I’m very concerned with a massive project, as exciting as this is, completely tearing apart a neighborhood and the people living there not being able to take advantage of those benefits,” he said last November.

Christopher assured Arthur that wouldn’t happen with this project. He said they would be giving West End residents the tools to earn more and afford higher housing costs.

But those benefits will take time, said Tony Curtis, the executive director of the Metropolitan Housing Coalition, a local nonprofit that advocates for affordable housing.

Meanwhile, property values are already climbing.

The Jefferson County PVA’s reassessment this year showed values went up for 93% of the nearly 19,000 single-family homes and rental properties in the neighborhoods north of Algonquin Parkway and west of Ninth Street, according to data obtained by KyCIR.

The annual tax bills for homes in the area will go up $340 on average, based on an analysis using 2022 tax rates. This analysis does not include potential property tax exemptions.

“Property values directly impact rental prices, they directly impact opportunities for entry into home ownership eventually,” Curtis said. “And that's a problem.”

Curtis said the real estate deals related to AMPED’s project “reek” of the type of predatory speculation that inflates property values.

Speculation refers to the practice of buying property in depressed areas with the anticipation that coming development will spark a price hike and the chance to profit.

“It’s almost like insider trading,” he said. “Speculators come in, buy up property with the intention of the value going up, and it just drives out people and businesses.”

Curtis worries that would irreparably change the neighborhood — and invite investors looking to make a profit.

Correction: A previous version of this story included Jecorey Arthur's former party affiliation.

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.