A rendering of what the Russell Arts and Cultural District could look like. | Courtesy of AIA

Louisville-Jefferson County Metro Government is dedicating $175,000 from its general fund to nonprofit Louisville Central Community Centers to help kick-start efforts to create an arts, culture and commercial district along Muhammad Ali Boulevard.

Government leaders announced Monday that the city had signed a formal agreement to make the Russell Arts and Cultural District, a proposed development that runs down Muhammad Ali Boulevard from Sixth Street to 21st Street, part of its Choice Neighborhoods Initiative to revitalize the Russell neighborhood. Louisville received a nearly $30 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for the initiative, which includes razing Beecher Terrace public housing complex and replace it with mixed-income housing.

“We haven’t accomplished much yet. This is just the start,” said Kevin Fields, president and CEO of LCCC, “but we think we are onto something.”

The Russell Arts and Cultural District will require lots of private investment to become a reality, in terms of businesses, artists and organizations locating along the Muhammad Ali Boulevard corridor. Fields didn’t elaborate but said to stay tuned as more well-defined plans would be announced in the near future.

“We think we have an opportunity to turn the table a little bit and begin a direction of bringing more economic vibrancy to this area,” Fields said. “It’s really about commercial development and changing economic trends.”

Fields is meeting biweekly with city officials, including the Louisville Metro Housing Authority executive director, Tim Barry, and the Office of Advanced Planning’s director, Gretchen Milliken, related to the new arts and cultural district.

The money from metro government will allow LCCC to travel to different cities to encourage people to see what’s happening in Louisville.

The poster shows what Sixth Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard could be in contrast to today’s view, above. | Courtesy of AIA

“Mayor (Jerry) Abramson was really into recruiting individuals, going and promoting the city to attract people,” said Jeana Dunlap, director of the Office of Redevelopment Strategies. “I envision the same thing happening with different artists. Struggling artists are really trying hard to make it in larger markets, and I think there is a lot of opportunity to lure people like that to Louisville because the cost of living is better, and here we are trying to really encourage and support that type of homesteading.”

Louisville residents will start to seeing changes this fall related to the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative, Dunlap said.

Louisville Metro Councilwoman Barbara Sexton Smith (D-4), formerly head of the Fund for the Arts, said Monday that the Russell Arts and Cultural District would be a connector between the Central Business District and West Louisville, helping to break down the invisible Ninth Street divide.

“Imagine a community where everyone feels connected — connected to safety, connected to health,” she said.

An important part of the project should be minority-owned businesses, Sexton Smith said, adding that nearly three-fourths of the residents in District 4 are African-American.

The city offers a Business Accelerator Loan, up to $50,000, for qualified business owners who want to open a business in one of West Louisville’s nine neighborhoods. The Metropolitan Business Development Corporation also has loan programs aimed to help minority business owners and spur investment in West Louisville.

“Gentrification is a huge and real fear among the community, so encouraging long-term Russell residents or people of color to get involved with direct investment is certainly part of the strategy to calm those fears,” Dunlap said.

Another party involved in the planning for the arts and cultural district as well as the conversations surrounding the redevelopment of Beecher Terrace is the Concerned Pastors of Russell, a collection of church leaders who wanted to make sure voices from the neighborhood were heard during the planning process for the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative.

Rev. David Snardon, head of the group, said the HUD funding would be “life-changing” for Russell, where many residents live without amenities such as a grocery store or other retail businesses and struggle to find employment.

“Invest in this community and consider moving here because we have an eager workforce,” he said to businesses.

Planning for the Russell Arts and Cultural District started in 2015 when LCCC worked with volunteer professionals from the American Institute of Architects to craft a vision for how to transform a 1.4-mile stretch of West Muhammad Ali Boulevard. The plans are reminiscent of the Old Walnut Street, a lively corridor of businesses and entertainment that stretched from downtown into Russell more than a half-century ago.