The neighborhoods that make up west Louisville were once vibrant and thriving, said Evon Smith, the president and CEO of Louisville nonprofit OneWest. Years ago, businesses lined the streets and neighborhoods were walkable, with all essentials close by.
Smith describes the area of the city now: Within its 350 blocks, there’s only two grocery stores. Vacant building numbers climb as homeowner numbers decrease.
It’s gone downhill since the 1930s, when urban renewal razed many Black-owned businesses and many white people left the area for the city’s south and east ends starting in the 1950s, according to the University of Louisville. Twenty years later, Black people began to leave the area, too. Now, its residents are predominantly minorities and the median household income is about $21,000, according to University of Louisville data.
“It’s always surprising to find that the spirit of the people who live here and work here is still so filled with pride and, and love for their city,” Smith said. “And for their history, because they remember the community when it was thriving.”
This is not Smith’s first time stimulating development in neighborhoods. She’s worked on a $50 million economic development project in Winston Salem, North Carolina and a $100 million economic development project in Greensboro, North Carolina. She was recruited by OneWest to Louisville three years ago. The recipe of successful development is similar in each community, she said. It’s important to “check the temperature for where the community is,” she said, which means including the community with every aspect and phase of development.
Start By Listening
So that’s exactly what she did. For a year and a half, Smith and her team at OneWest met with minority business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs for two hours every Saturday to hear what they needed. Sometimes over 90 people would line up to speak with the group.
“That’s how hungry they were to try to tap into resources to help them grow their businesses and their ideas,” she said. Through these conversations, Smith noticed a pattern of construction and development interest.
The feedback that OneWest received was translated into action: a construction accelerator called The Plan Room, which is officially launching next month. The accelerator has already published a database of over 500 minority businesses, she said, and hosted several webinars. It will also act as a hub for information on bids and have a computer room with Wi-Fi for contractors to access.
“Seeing the huge gap in resources and for these small businesses, we knew that we had to have an accelerator because we were going to have to move quickly to address people’s needs,” she said.
Smith wants to ensure these minority contractors have the resources they need now so when the $3 billion of projects that the city knows are planned in the next two years or so, the companies are ready to be hired. Some projects that have been announced are a 142,000 square foot Amazon last mile delivery facility and $75 million in planned projects out of the Muhammad Ali International Airport. Louisville’s mayor Greg Fischer has developed a taskforce for minority recruitment, which Smith sits on, and companies involved will be very intentional of who their hiring to complete construction, she said.
Another years-long effort in west Louisville is The Village @ West Jefferson, a seven-year, more than $7 million project led by consultant Johnetta Roberts and her firm The 40&1 . The 30,000 square foot, two-floor building will be a hub of resources for the Russell neighborhood, which was known as “little Harlem” for its large African American business community in the 1940s.
The residents of the 30,000 square foot building include:
- Park Community Credit Union, which is Kentucky’s second largest credit union.
- Ohio Valley Educational Cooperative, which will open a full service early education center for kids. It will be able to serve 65 children, many of them Roberts anticipates will be low income children.
- The Russell Technology Business Incubator, the city’s first incubator focused on minority entrepreneurs.
- G. Starks Realty, a 20-year-old, Black-owned real estate company, which also does property management
- Drippin Crab, a sit down, seafood restaurant by Darnell Ferguson, who is a nationally recognized chef and owner of superhero-themed restaurant SuperChefs. Roberts said he’s also planning to hire from the neighborhood.
- The Louisville Metro Housing Authority, which is leading a major project across the street from the Village that is transforming a former housing development into a new neighborhood with 640 new units, the Beecher Terrace Neighborhood.
- Sponsor 4 Success, a global network of philanthropists who were all born and raised in Louisville
40&1 is also hoping to secure a healthcare provider and is working on a plan to have a mini grocery market by a company called Next Door Market Mobile Grocery, Roberts said.
When scouting businesses to include, Roberts, too, started by collecting data about what exists in the community and then making a detailed plan to fill the gaps. That plan includes securing capital to fund the necessary projects, she said. “What I found in Louisville is you can no longer ignore the disparities,” she said.
It’s also important to create an ecosystem that can eventually function on its own, Roberts said. The goal with the businesses at The Village is they will support other businesses in the West End, creating a cycle.
In the next few months, Roberts said 40&1 is starting a new project, but will continue to check in with the businesses at The Village to ensure they have the support they need to stay long-term.