West Louisville Neighborhood Leaders Want Transparency in ‘Walmart Deal’

Neighborhood leaders in west Louisville want more information about a development project at the old Philip Morris plant.

Last November, WFPL reported a deal was in the works to bring a Walmart to the southwest corner of Dixie Highway and Broadway in the California area.

Since then community leaders, labor groups and elected officials have engaged in an at times fiercely worded debate over the retail giant.

The city and the developer, The Mardrian Group (TMG), did not confirm or deny WFPL’s initial report. Mayor Greg Fischer has described the deal as a private negotiation and his office has signed a confidentiality agreement with the retailer in question.

That is drawing concern from many grassroots organizations who say residents need more information before they can decide if they support the project or not.

“I’m not totally against a Walmart or a Costco or a Target moving into the neighborhood,” says Haven Harrington III, president of the Russell neighborhood association. “What my concern is, if you’re going to get this type of big box store I want to make sure it fits with an urban location: does it come up to the sidewalk, where is the parking and how much space will it need. That it’s not a suburban, big-box retailer.”

“And I would like to see Walmart pay more than what they normally pay their employees if they’re going to move to west Louisville. I would like to make sure they employ folks from west Louisville.”

TMG purchased the land from the city for $1.3 million in 2007, and initially wanted to turn the location into a mixed-use development. But those plans stalled for a variety of reasons, and the lot has been an abandoned eyesore ever since.

Sources with intimate knowledge of the current talks told WFPL the store will be larger than other locations and house a training center for employees to manager other Walmart locations across the country.

An open records request to Metro Government sought official correspondence about the project, but Fischer’s office declined to release those records citing attorney-client privilege and other exemptions. Those close to the deal have told WFPL part of the hold up is a smaller piece of land in the area, but would not elaborate futher.

Councilman David Tandy, D-4, whose district includes the former Philip Morris site, says a big box retailer would be a “game changer” for the area. But he says no information has been given to him since the mayor’s office approached lawmakers about needed funded for locations around the site.

“I would like to receive more updates as to where things stand regarding the negotiations and the progress that has been made since we last spoke about the matter,” he says. “I do understand, however, the need to make sure when you’re in the negotiations process that certain things not be made public.”

A Fischer spokesman told WFPL once a deal is complete the administration will bring it to council members and citizens. Representatives from Walmart say they are always looking to expand, but have nothing to announce at this time.

Other areas leaders says that isn’t good enough.

They are demanding city officials be more forthcoming with details about the plan, including any public financing, store size and future developments.

“I can’t really agree or disagree because I really don’t know exactly what’s going on at 18th and Broadway,” says California Neighborhood Leadership Council Inc. president Michael Brooks. “We don’t know out here, and no one is contacting us to relay it to residents. I’m seeing people opposing and un-opposing when all of this should be brought to us. I feel disenfranchised and disconnected.”

Critics point to Walmart’s poor labor record and low wages, and have asked for three of concessions in advance. They want Walmart to pay employees a prevailing wage, allow workers to unionize and hire employees from the neighborhood.

Chickasaw Federation President Donovan Taylor says it’s premature for council members and union activists to protest the project, but he agrees the lack of information is a frustration.

“The first line of information should be our local officials who need to be pressing for more information on what’s going to happen with this particular deal over protesting it altogehter,” he says. “It’s a backdoor and closed door deal, and I am completely dissatisfied because we have no construction plans or job conditions or anything. Everything is a big question mark right now.”

Those who support the idea argue the area is in need of jobs and West End customers deserve better retail services.

The California neighborhood is in one the poorest zip codes in the country, and some have gone as far to suggest city lawmakers who criticize bringing Walmart to the site are committing “treason” against their constituents.

Brooks says he has supported redevelopment in the area for decades but wants those who will have to live with whatever the project ends up being to lead the discussion.

“In a way I would like to see a Walmart, but what about other establishments such as other department stores, a movie theater or any of those projects combined. A Walmart could bring economic development,” he says. “But I’m kind of questioning who is it going to benefit: Walmart or the residents?”

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