Remember five years ago, when the Louisville Metro Council and then-Mayor Jerry Abramson fought over the Center City project?
Center City was to be a retail-focused expansion of the 4th Street Live entertainment district bounded by Second, Third and Liberty streets and Muhammad Ali Boulevard.
Back then, Metro Government was aiming to spend $25 million buying land for the project and was planning to issue nearly $120 in bonds through tax increment financing (TIF), in hopes Cordish would invest more than $200 million downtown.
The company was only required to invest $24.4 million.
The Abramson administration said it was the best way to revive downtown. Many council members saw it as a giveaway. In their concerns, they cited the Museum Plaza project, which was then stalled because of the poor economy. Five years later, Museum Plaza is no more and Center City is still in development.
That project took a step forward this week when Cordish Cos. Vice President Blake Cordish told Business First that the project will be revised. With $245 million in private money and an unknown amount of public support, Cordish says his company will build a four-star hotel, 200 residential units and a grocery store, which is currently lacking from downtown.
On the surface, the mayor and downtown boosters say the city needs these things. Fischer says the planned revisions to the convention center will increase hotel demand (though several dozen hotel rooms were dropped from the Museum Plaza plan over the years it was stalled). Alan Delisle, of the Downtown Development Corporation, says more residential space is welcome (it could also boost his organization’s current attempt to bring more retail to the blocks south of 4th Street Live), and even though at least two previous grocery efforts in the urban core have failed in the last five years, the DDC’s research shows the right kind of grocery could thrive downtown.
But the city’s reaction is less enthusiastic this time around.
“What you’re hearing from me is caution,” says Fischer. “Obviously I’m going to be very enthused about having a significant investment in downtown that way, but it needs to be done in a manner that the Metro Council, the taxpayers, see the transparency in it and understand it’s a good deal for all involved.”
Fischer says the financial analysis of the project isn’t complete. And he’s not sure about putting public money toward it.
“We gotta make sure the numbers work and I’m not going to put the taxpayers out on any kind of limb that exposes us to undue risk.”
There’s also the potential for another backlash from the Metro Council and the public.
Since that first fracas over Center City, the council has passed a handful of transparency ordinances, largely aimed at shedding some light on the notoriously secretive relationship between the city and Cordish.
Last year, the Fischer administration apologized over a botched loan agreement with Cordish. In that situation, Fischer hoped to offer the developer a $850,000 forgivable loan to attract an unnamed tenant to downtown. It was later revealed the tenant was the Learning House, which was already headquartered downtown.
Republicans and Democrats continue to be watchful of the relationship, with many saying the city’s relationship with Cordish is fundamentally flawed.
“One person having multiple contracts where they control so much of this city’s valuable real estate is not a good situation,” Councilman Brent Ackerson, D-26, told WFPL in March 2012. “It does not promote competition and it does not promote true market values to what’s happening. The concern really boils down to we cannot allow one entity to monopolize what’s going on downtown.”
Public outcry over the use of taxpayer money for 4th Street Live has remained consistent, and recent allegations of racial discrimination have left some African-Americans and others wondering if the city should continue to do business with Cordish.
Fischer is supportive of 4th Street Live, and says it’s been successful bringing people downtown. But he didn’t strike the first deal with Cordish, and his approach to dealing with the company, at least publicly, is different than his predecessor’s. He says the public’s concerns over previous deals is something he’s thinking about.
“That’s why I’m expressing concern and caution about the money going into it. It needs to be something, when the citizens look at it, they understand it’s a good deal for the city,” Fischer said Friday.
Cordish must submit a plan for construction or ask for an extension on the project by Sept. 1. At that point, the city could walk away from the developer.