Community Metro Louisville

The West End Opportunity Partnership promises to bring new business and development to west Louisville, but some residents are concerned the Partnership will only increase inequality and gentrification. Some are even organizing to stop it.

The Kentucky General Assembly created the Partnership earlier this year to oversee a tax scheme in the West End known as tax increment financing (TIF). That means city officials will look at how much west Louisville neighborhoods are producing in taxes right now. Using that number as a benchmark, 80% of any new tax revenue over that will go directly to the Partnership’s account. The Partnership will control a slice of west Louisville’s tax money for the next 20 years.

“Things are coming, but it’s not for them”

Over a dozen west Louisville residents gathered in the bleachers and on lawn chairs in California Park last month to learn more about the West End Opportunity Partnership. 

The meeting, hosted by the Coalition of West Louisville Neighborhood Associations, included three of the Partnership’s newly-elected board members. Residents peppered them with questions about how the Partnership will work and how it’ll affect them: 

“Could there be a commitment from the existing board members that there will be better engagement and better transparency than the rollout?” 

“How much money are we talking about?” 

“Is there criteria to gauge what proposals merit the investment?” 

The board members — like Metro Council President David James — couldn’t answer many of their questions. James explained that the Partnership had only just started meeting, and he directed the attendees to read the legislation.

“I would advise everybody to go look at it and read it in detail. That’s where all the meat is to what we’re doing,” he said.

The lack of specifics left some residents visibly frustrated. 

Yolanda Walker, president of the California Neighborhood Leadership Council, said she is skeptical of the new organization. The 62-year-old said she’s seen vague promises of West End revitalization before, some from the very institutions represented on the Partnership’s current board.

“I was a baby with the redlining, but I seen the urban renewal, I was a teen,” Walker said. “I’ve seen a lot of broken promises and we’re going to do this and we’re going to do that.”

Walker said she wants to see residents guiding new investments in west Louisville. So far, she feels developers and politicians have the most say.

“Residents live, they breathe, they die, they go through the day-to-day,” Walker said. “So, they know what is needed in their community.”

Mike Neagle, who heads the Portland Now Neighborhood Association, also attended the meeting in California Park and shares some of Walker’s skepticism. 

He said he’s concerned the focus on development might overshadow the needs of existing residents, many of whom lack access to living wage jobs and pathways to homeownership.

“You know, what good is a sculpture garden if I don’t have enough food to last me through the end of the week?” he said. “People are concerned that things are coming, but it’s not for them.”

So far, only 12 people have been appointed to the 21-member board that will govern the West End Opportunity Partnership. They include representatives of local banks, nonprofits and universities, among others. 

The current board members will decide how to elect or appoint the remaining board seats, which must go to residents from each of the nine neighborhoods included in the Partnership’s footprint: Algonquin, California, Chickasaw, Park Duvalle, Park Hill, Parkland, Portland, Russell and Shawnee. The board has not yet agreed on how to fill those seats. There will also be a non-voting advisory board made up of local residents and people with expertise in economic development.

Opponents of the Partnership have pointed out that even when the resident board members are seated, they will still be outnumbered by the appointees of Gov. Andy Beshear, Mayor Greg Fischer, Metro Council and local university presidents.

Organizing against the Partnership

Some west Louisville residents fear the promised economic development will hasten gentrification and displacement, and they are organizing in hopes of ending the project before it even begins.

Mariel Gardner lives in the Park DuValle neighborhood and runs an urban farm in Parkland. She’s also an organizer with the resident-led #StopTheWestEndTIF campaign, which has the support of the Historic Black Neighborhood Assembly.

“People are concerned about renters, first and foremost,” Gardner said. “I think 66% of people who live in the West End are renters and this could be extremely detrimental to them.”

If the Partnership is successful in attracting new businesses and residential development, organizers say that would increase property values and property taxes. Landlords could then pass those costs on to tenants in the form of higher rents. That could have major consequences in a part of Louisville where 40 percent of residents live below the federal poverty line

“In the past, I have not been concerned about losing my home,” Gardner said. “This seems much more dangerous.”

Ameerah Granger, a Chickasaw resident and organizer, said funding new development through a TIF district over most of west Louisville feels like officials are making residents “pay to be discarded.”

“You’re making us pay to be relocated,” Granger said. “We’re funding this gentrification effort, but we’re funding it ourselves.”

Organizers with the #StopTheWestEndTIF campaign are giving presentations warning about the negative impacts of the West End Opportunity Partnership and recording interviews with residents who oppose it. The campaign has so far collected about 200 signatures through digital and hand-written petitions. They have a list of demands that call on Metro Government to reject any funding agreement with the Partnership, stop “government-sanctioned exploitation of the West End” and start supporting resident-led initiatives.

Organizers say the West End Opportunity Partnership was created to help developers, not residents. They highlight that Partnership board members have thanked local developers for helping create and advocate for the legislation, including Evon Smith, CEO of the non-profit development company OneWest, and Craig Greenberg, a mayoral candidate who runs a firm focused on urban development and redevelopment projects.

Business, not social services

David James, the Partnership’s interim board chair and a Democrat whose Metro Council district includes some West End neighborhoods, told WFPL News the legislation that created the Partnership tries to address concerns around displacement. 

“Homeowners who live in the TIF,  their taxes are basically frozen at what they are now,” James said. “So that’s not going to happen to homeowners.”

Under the new law, current west Louisville homeowners will be eligible for a refund on any property tax increases after Jan. 1, 2021. That tax refund can be passed on to family members if the homeowner dies, but it can’t be transferred to a new owner. The law does not address the potential displacement of renters.

At the recent meeting in California Park, board member Frank Smith, Jr., executive vice president of Simmons College, said he plans to make sure the board is listening to the thoughts and concerns of residents.

“I do not believe in gentrification,” Smith said. “I believe that we should strive to build up and strengthen the development of Black businesses, so that [the Partnership] will be best able to turn these dollars back around within the neighborhoods.”

State law also requires the Partnership to ensure jobs for residents from any business it incentivizes to locate in west Louisville. Any housing development that gets support from the Partnership also has to include affordable housing. The law doesn’t specify how many jobs, nor how many housing units or the level of affordability. 

As for those who say leaders should address West End residents’ basic needs first, James said  that’s a different conversation.

“Ultimately, this is not a social services board, this is a business board,” he said. “And so the idea is to encourage and promote business growth in west Louisville.”

But some West End residents remain unconvinced that will be enough to reverse decades of disinvestment. And they fear it could make things worse.

Roberto Roldan is the City Politics and Government Reporter for WFPL.