Kenny Tilley and George Coy work on a project, Level of Excellence Construction, done in partnership with The Fuller Center for Housing near Shawnee Park. | Photo by Brian Bohannon

The influx of public money into west Louisville is turning the once neglected part of town into a hotbed for new development, and  Southeast Christian Church has emerged as an unlikely player in this transformation of the city west of Ninth Street.

The East End congregation has partnerships with area churches and nonprofits involved in construction and workforce development. Many people in the community welcome Southeast Christian’s participation because of the church’s resources and close association with Gov. Matt Bevin.

But some west Louisville residents are concerned Southeast is using its partners and assets to shape the future of their community.

“The model Southeast is trying to follow is commendable, but the way they are going about it leaves room for questioning because it’s almost like a takeover at times,” said Phyllis Brown, a Shawnee resident and a board member of the Fuller Center for Housing, one of Southeast’s most prominent west Louisville partnerships.

Phyllis Brown | Photo by Michael L. Jones

Until she retired in 2002, Brown was executive director of the Human Relations Commission for the old city of Louisville. Her main responsibility was to monitor how federal money was being spent as it pertained to the hiring of minorities and females on construction projects.

She oversaw the city’s redevelopment of Park DuValle, Liberty Green and Sheppard Square.

The Fuller Center, located at 4509 W. Market St., is a faith-based nonprofit that helps needy families purchase new or remodeled homes. The center experienced some cash flow issues in 2015, and Southeast came to the rescue with $150,000 for administrative support and funding for several home builds.

In exchange, the church took two seats on the board and, according to Brown, it started to take control of the organization.

Brown joined Fuller’s board in 2016. She said Southeast provides most of the center’s funding, staff, programs and decides who it partners with on projects. She would like to see more local control over the organization and partnerships with independent west Louisville organizations like the Nia Center or the Louisville Urban League.

“What I see happening with Southeast is that they come into the neighborhood and say, ‘We’re a Christian ministry and we wanna, we wanna, we wanna …’ But it’s like they are bringing you a gift, they are telling you when to open it, how to look at it, how to handle, and what to do about the gift,” Brown said.

Southeast Christian Mission Coordinator Chad Blanchard is the chair of the Fuller Center board. Blanchard said his church gives financial support and volunteers to more than 20 churches and more than 30 organization in west Louisville. In addition to the Fuller Center, these partners include Shawnee Christian Healthcare, Greater New Beginnings Christian Church and the Portland Promise Center.

Blanchard said the church has a biblical mission to aid and pray for communities in need. He denies Southeast has undue influence over any of its partners.

“Southeast Christian has been actively engaged in west Louisville for many years. Our mission is connecting people to Jesus and one another. … A key part of how Southeast comes alongside local churches and organizations includes the mobilization of our human resources. We love to join hands with our brothers and sisters to serve the community and share the hope of Jesus,” Blanchard said in an emailed response to questions from Insider Louisville.

Fuller Center Executive Director Mark Van Meter said his organization expects to complete 20 homes this year, 17 renovations and three new builds. Van Meter pointed out that there are several churches and other organizations that partner with the center and provide funding. Southeast is just the largest and most visible among them, he said.

In 2015, Outreach Magazine named Southeast Christian the seventh-biggest congregation in America with more than 21,000 members spread across six locations. The main campus is located at 920 Blankenbaker Parkway, but Southeast also maintains campuses in Jeffersonville, Elizabethtown, Crestwood, La Grange and south Louisville.

The church has made no secret of its plans spread its ministry as far as possible. In March 2016, Southeast Executive Pastor Tim Hester told the Courier Journal, “the church paid off all its existing debt in August 2013. So when money comes in, everything else goes right out as fast as it can to reach more people.” Hester said the church brings in as much as $1.2 million a week in offerings from its members.

Southeast’s interest in west Louisville coincides with heightened concerns about gentrification and current residents being priced out of the area. The U.S. Department of Housing and Human Services awarded Louisville a $30 million grant in 2016 to redevelopment the Beecher Terrace Housing Project into mixed-income housing, with city officials initially estimating this would attract more than  $200 million in investment.

Home sales in the Portland, Russell and Shawnee neighborhoods rose more than 40 percent between 2016 and 2017, thanks to the award. City officials also say there is more than $600 million in residential and commercial development proposed in those neighborhoods over the next decade.

West Louisville residents are already complaining about rising rents and property taxes due to all the change in status. These issues could get worse now that parts of the area have been designated as “Opportunity Zones” by President Donald Trump’s administration. This new program allows private investors to receive large capital gains tax breaks for investing in these low-income neighborhoods.

Van Meter said the Fuller Center will probably apply for the Opportunity Zones program and any other grants that would allow it to build more houses. Van Meter pointed out that there are about 7,000 vacant properties in the city and more than 4,000 of them are in west Louisville.

Blanchard said Southeast’s partnership with the Fuller was never about benefiting the church itself.

“Through our relationships and time spent with church pastors, organizations and community leaders, they have expressed a significant need for housing in west Louisville,” he said. “One glaring indicator is that Louisville has the seventh-highest eviction rate among the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the United States. That is where the Fuller Center shines.”

Southeast’s resources and connection with Gov. Bevin, the man who picked Kentucky’s Opportunity Zones, makes famed civil rights activist Mattie Jones suspicious. Because the Fuller Center owns the mortgages on the homes it builds, she feels Southeast controls them indirectly.

“I had heard Southeast was getting involved with some of the black churches from people who wanted to know what they should do about it,” Jones said. “There is an undercurrent moving in this community, and it’s moving with money. If you are looking carefully and thinking about it, we are targets. But the money is making some of us greedy.”

She is worried current west Louisville residents will sell their homes or be evicted and then not be able to afford to live in the same community. She has lived in a home at River Park and Louis Coleman drives for 50 years. Last month, she said, real estate speculators were going door to door making cash offers for homes on the block that was recently renamed for her.

A real estate search of property sales in west Louisville did not turn up any transactions directly involving Southeast Christian, but Cornelius Butler, a former executive director of the Fuller Center, believes Southeast plans to develop a west Louisville campus in anticipation of the time when the community is younger, wealthier and whiter.

“You are not going to find anything in their name because everything they do is through third parties,” Butler said. “They send their members out and get their members on the boards of nonprofits. They finance those nonprofits and slowly make them operate the way Southeast wants them to operate.”

The Fuller Center | Photo by Michael L. Jones

Butler took over the Fuller Center in 2016, not long after Southeast got involved with the organization. He said he was given two goals: to make the organization self-sustaining so it could generate its own funds, and make it a ministry to empower the community through home ownership and working with minority contractors.

Butler said trying to accomplish those things got him fired in June 2017.

Butler claims he raised enough money to make the Fuller Center self-sustaining for two years without donations from Southeast. His mistake, he said, was bringing on new board members like Brown to add diversity and independence to the Fuller Center’s board.

After he tried to add an outspoken activist minister from west Louisville to the board, Butler said he was let go. Butler believes Southeast Missions Director Charlie Vittitow was afraid the minister would dilute Southeast’s control of the board.

“Southeast talks partnerships, but their real goal is assimilation,” Butler said. “I quickly learned when I was through the door that there was a second agenda going on. The board members were not participating initially. I would have one meeting with my board and the next be with the Southeast Missions department. Southeast operates from the premise that ‘West Louisville needs saving, and God has called us in to save it.’ ”

Fuller Center Chief Development & Strategy Officer Betty Fox said Butler is misrepresenting the organization’s relationship with Southeast.

“We have partnerships with a number of churches,” she said. “The Fuller Center would not be who we are without getting support from the Southeast Christians, the Portland Memorials. When you have funders investing in your organization, you want them to have some say-so.”

In an interview with Insider, Vittitow denied Butler’s charges concerning his control of the Fuller Center. He said Southeast offers resources and volunteers to its partners but does not force them to accept the help. Pastor Darrell Wilson of Greater New Beginnings Christian Church, located at 2100 W. Oak St., supports Vittitow’s statement.

Greater New Beginnings first got involved with Southeast six years ago. In 2015, the church formed a partnership with Southeast, the Fuller Center and CrossRoads Mission to buy and renovate vacant homes in the California neighborhood. CrossRoads Missions is a faith-based construction company that was founded two decades ago by Southeast member Rob Minton.

Wilson believes his arrangement with Southeast has benefited his church and the community around it. He never felt that Southeast’s help was based any agenda but serving God.

“Southeast puts checks and balances in place because they want to make sure their money goes where it is supposed to go. I call that fiscal responsibility,” Wilson said. “Some people might see it as control, but I am not one of them.”