The push to transform a west Louisville neighborhood received a $5 million boost on Wednesday as Louisville Metro joined Cities United and the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust in announcing the creation of an initiative called Russell: A Place of Promise.
According to the announcement, the initiative is intended to be a national model for “equitable community development in African-American communities.”
“Russell is at the cusp of a really significant redevelopment, and we will be intentional about ensuring that this investment benefits existing residents while bringing much-needed new capital to Russell,” said Mayor Greg Fischer in the announcement.
The purpose, project leaders said in an interview, is to ensure that Russell neighbors and stakeholders play a prominent role in the effort to create affordable housing, new jobs, business opportunities, new community gathering spots, opportunities for mobility, wealth creation and whole-community health.
Russell: A Place of Promise will be co-led by Theresa Zawacki, who will be leaving her position as senior policy adviser to Louisville Forward, the city’s economic development arm, to serve as an executive on loan during the project’s incubation stages, and Anthony Smith, executive director at Cities United.
On a tour of the neighborhood, Smith said in an interview that he and Zawacki saw “all the possibilities, the promise, the history — it was called the Harlem of the South at one time, and still is.”
Despite its rich cultural history, the project leaders noted, decades of disinvestment and neglect because of then-legal racial discrimination in housing and business policy, including the practice of redlining, have left a lasting impact on Russell.
As a result of these broken systems, they said, neighborhood residents face higher hurdles related to employment, educational attainment and access to neighborhood goods, services and health care.
The question became, Smith said, “How do we invest in Russell in a way that does not displace residents but helps them take advantage of all the opportunities?”
Russell: A Place of Promise was born as a path to wealth creation, he said.
Zawacki added that robust community engagement would be on the front end of the initiative, not an afterthought.
“It is really important to respect the vision and the desire of the people who live there and then let them shape the outcome,” she said.
To that end, a series of meetings have been planned to engage the community. Also, an initial advisory board has been created.
Among the board members are Dana Jackson, Better Together Strategies; Alice Houston, HJI Supply Chain Solutions; Jackie Floyd, Center for Neighborhoods; David Snardon, Joshua Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church and Concerned Pastors of Russell; Kevin Dunlap, Rebound; Gill Holland, impact entrepreneur, small-scale developer and community builder; Dorian Burton, assistant executive director of the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust; and Trisha Finnegan, vice president of Mission & Impact at the Community Foundation of Louisville.
According to the announcement, project organizers have identified initial efforts that could be used to create wealth for Russell residents, including new homeownership and business ownership opportunities.
The details will be hashed out after input and decision-making from neighborhood residents and groups, organizers said.
Project leaders have had preliminary discussions with some of those stakeholders, Zawacki said, and have met with local foundations and community-based organizations to understand the work in progress. The work includes:
- The Louisville Urban League will invest $30 million in the Track on Ali, a multisports complex anchored by an indoor track and field facility to be built and operated at a 24-acre, city-owned property known as Heritage West.
- A new $130 million headquarters for Louisville-based nonprofit health insurance provider, Passport Health Plan, and a new $35 million branch of the YMCA of Greater Louisville are also under construction.
- OneWest is investing in the transformation of 18th Street and West Broadway with the launch of a “special improvements district” to focus on making the corridor clean and safe, and with plans to reinvest in area commercial spaces.
- A $29.5 million Choice Neighborhoods Grant awarded to the Louisville Metro Housing Authority and Louisville Metro Government is leveraging over $200 million in new investment.
- These activities are further complemented by long-standing partner investments in projects such as an arts and cultural district along Muhammad Ali Boulevard, the reinvigoration of existing commercial space, market rate housing development, and workforce training programs.
The Place of Promise effort complements and augments that work, Zawacki said, as well as efforts being made by local nonprofits and community groups, including the Louisville Urban League, OneWest, Concerned Pastors of Russell, Habitat for Humanity, Louisville Central Community Center and Community Ventures.
The main parties have worked together before. In July 2017, Kenan Charitable Trust invested over $5 million to lift the outcome of black men ages 16-25 living in Louisville and Lexington with Cities United joining national partners to start young leaders fellowships.
“Louisville is a place of promise that can be a beacon that the rest of country looks to for how to build black wealth and mobility while allowing the community to define its own outcomes,” said Dorian Burton, assistant executive director for the Kenan Charitable Trust, in the news release.
Cities United was created in 2011 as a national effort to eliminate the violence in American cities related to African-American men and boys. Some 56 mayors and cities have signed on, according to the organization’s website.
Smith, who joined Cities United in 2015, said as the initiative gained a foothold in Russell, it could be replicated to other communities “using the models here in Louisville as an incubator and building a framework” to create best practices.
“Some days it will be pretty,” he said, “and some days it won’t.” Even so, he added, “We can say, ‘Look what Louisville did,’ and see how to port it elsewhere.”
Louisville Metro Government, in partnership with Cities United, said it would incubate Russell: A Place of Promise for up to five years before it becomes a stand-alone, community-based organization. The initiative is fiscally sponsored by the Community Foundation of Louisville, which allows the initiative to receive grants and tax-deductible donations.
Community meetings for Russell: A Place of Promise will be held on:
- Tuesday, Aug. 28, from 5-7:30 p.m., Joshua Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church
- Thursday, Aug. 30, from 5-7:30 p.m., Baxter Community Center
- Saturday, Sept. 8, from 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m., location to be announced