The Louisville Metro Council passed a city budget for the upcoming fiscal year Thursday, but not before a contentious debate about the Whiskey Row development.
Mayor Greg Fischer submitted a spending plan that included a $500,000 allocation for private developers—among them philanthropist Christy Brown, the widow of former chairman of the Brown-Forman Corp, Owsley Brown II—to restore the historic string of buildings along West Main Street.
The mayor had proposed using the money to create a revolving fund to help restore historic properties beginning with Whiskey Row, but a bipartisan group of council members argued Metro Government had already provided investors with a $1.5 million forgivable loan for the project.
The budget committee approved language in the ordinance on Wednesday that required developers to reimburse the city $1 million if the Whiskey Row buildings were later sold. But Fischer's office argued it was an unprecedented step by the council that could jeopardize the original agreement.
Councilwoman Tina Ward-Pugh, D-9, introduced an amendment to take that wording out of the final ordinance, but allow lawmakers to hold the money until Fischer renegotiates the deal. She says lawmakers unfairly tied the mayor's hands to negotiate.
“I'm asking you to allow the mayor do his job and negotiate a deal, and when he brings it over if you don't like it then don't vote for it,” she said. “Let's debate it at that time because we're not doing it tonight. This really isn't about debating the merits of rich folks spending money on preservation or not. If anything, this is a power and money grab by the Metro Council.”
A bipartisan group of council members voiced objections to the proposal arguing that the $500,000 could be better spent elsewhere.
“I could take $500,000 and rehab just about every vacant house in District 3,” said Councilwoman Mary Woolridge, D-3. “I'm not in favor of giving these private investors more taxpayers dollars.”
Speaking before the council, River City Drum Corps founder and CEO Ed White told lawmakers that arts groups serving at-risk youth such as his have been neglected by Fischer’s office in favor of giving private investors hefty forgivable loans.
“We can sit here and give some investors $1.5 million to renovate seven buildings and then you give them another $500,000,” said White, whose granddaughter, Makeba Lee, was murdered during last month's shooting spree in the Parkland neighborhood. “Just think if you could take that $500,000 and give it to the people who actually in the trenches doing the work.”
However, Fischer's office has said the city investment in Whiskey Row is worth it due to the heavy public outcry against razing the buildings. And several other council members agreed that the agreement goes beyond a business deal and is about salvaging the city's history.
“This project is more than just a business deal,” says Councilman Brent Ackerson, D-26. “My children benefit from the preservation of Whiskey Row. My unborn grandchildren will benefit from these important structures. I'm hearing a lot of talk about rich people and backroom deals and questionable spending. I say, shame on us for that.”
But critics on the council point out the cost to revitalize the structures has tripled over the past year from $2.5 million to over $7 million. Those against the amendment argued the budget provisions were meant to protect taxpayers.
“There people are astute investors, they made an investment expecting a return and oops they want a do-over,” said Councilman Jerry Miller, R-19. “This is a ploy for time for the mayor to argue his case better. This is just a rouse folks. Recall when we voted for the $1.5 million we paid for a structural engineer and now they want a do-over. Folks, fool me once, shame on them. Fool me twice, shame on me.”
After an hour long debate, Ward-Pugh's amendment passed by a 14-to-10 vote. The council quickly moved to pass the overall spending plan as well.
Fischer thanked the council for its careful consideration and promised to review the spending plan in the coming days.