Shovels won’t dig into the earth at 3oth Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard this fall and, with cameras rolling, politicians won’t praise the more than two years of work that went into developing the West Louisville FoodPort.
After three weeks of attempting to save the multimillion-dollar agriculture hub project, Seed Capital KY, the nonprofit behind the development, officially called it Wednesday afternoon: The project is a no-go.
“As an economic development project, we are sad we couldn’t find a way to bring enough companies together,” Stephen Reily, co-founder of Seed Capital KY, told Insider Louisville Thursday morning. “We are deeply disappointed.”
The fatal domino was FarmedHere, the FoodPort’s anchor tenant, pulling out of the project. The Bedford Park, Ill.-based company planned to invest $23.5 million at the FoodPort to build a 60,000-square-foot indoor vertical farm but informed Seed Capital KY three weeks ago that it wouldn’t be breaking ground. IL reached out to FarmedHere for comment but did not immediately hear back.
“Until FarmedHere pulled out, this was all engines straight ahead,” Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer told reporters following an unrelated news conference on Thursday.
At that point, Reily said, Seed Capital KY started looking for a replacement anchor tenant as well as examining whether they could complete a smaller-scale version of the FoodPort. Both the mayor’s office and Louisville Forward, the city’s economic development arm, assisted with those efforts in recent weeks.
“We were literally days away from getting our final pricing,” he said. “We spent the last three weeks really scrambling. (But) we couldn’t see a way to make it work on a smaller scale.”
Reily added that it would cost $5 million just to construct interior roads on the 24-acre property and complete environmental impact work. The site, which has sat vacant for more than a decade, formerly housed a factory for the tobacco company Philip Morris.
A smaller FoodPort also would require Seed Capital KY to eliminate public uses from the project, such as the farmers market and recreation areas. “We couldn’t really justify that either, taking those out,” Reily said.
When asked if Seed Capital KY had considered building a smaller-scale FoodPort on a different piece of property, Reily said no.
“We have been so focused on this site, but obviously, we are open to this idea working elsewhere,” he said.
Seed Capital KY already had invested north of $3 million into the FoodPort project, including hundreds of thousands of dollars on environmental impact studies, design work and community engagement, he said.
With the collapse of the project — first reported by The Courier-Journal — there still are questions to be answered. Reily said the nonprofit is prepared to transfer the deed for the land back to the city — the city sold Seed Capital KY the 24-acre lot for $1 earlier this year — but he didn’t know the exact process for how that will happen.
The city will need to figure out a new way to reuse the property and how to market it to possible developers.
“We just got to get back at it and get working,” Fischer said. “Obviously this is a setback, but it’s only a failure if you don’t get back up and try again.”
The mayor said the city will assess all options, including the possibility of locating a professional soccer stadium on the property. Louisville will ask Conventions Sports & Leisure International, which conducted the soccer stadium feasibility study, to take a look at the land at 30th Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard. The property was not considered in the original study because of the FoodPort project.
The FoodPort is the latest large-scale project in West Louisville to falter. The idea of building an anaerobic digester in the California neighborhood was stopped by protests from residents; the proposed Walmart Supercenter project on Broadway still is tied up in a legal battle; and the YMCA of Greater Louisville has delayed construction of a new, state-of-the-art West End YMCA as it waits to hear if the project will receive New Market Tax Credits.
“We are still looking for that big project,” Fischer said, but several key aspects need to line up to make that happen.
“You have got to have clear and free title to the land, so when a developer says they’re ready to go, you can move quickly. Time tends to kill deals,” the mayor said. “The financials have got to work behind the plan. Oftentimes what happens in economically challenged areas anywhere in the country, there has to be some type of governmental assistance with that project so the financials end up making sense for the developer. That’s what you saw with the FoodPort where the value of the land was the city’s contribution to the project that helped make that work out, but without tenants that can pay, none of these projects are going to work out.”
Just this week, staff with Louisville Forward were meeting with Metro Council and community members to talk about also using an available $7 million loan to support the FoodPort, which ruffled some feathers in West Louisville. The loan is funded by private investors and guaranteed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the city is up against a deadline to apply to use the funds for a local project.
In spite of Seed Capital KY’s disappointment, Reily and co-founder Caroline Heine said they see a silver lining. The nonprofit convened a community council made up mostly of West Louisville residents and business owners to consult on the project, and Heine said members of the council expressed an interest Wednesday in keeping the council going.
“Many of those people have been contributing to this project since the very beginning. They decided that even if the project itself can’t go forward now, they will continue their work being advocates for West Louisville,” Heine said.
Neither Heine nor Reily know what their next step will be, but it will be something related to supporting local food growers and creating easier access to locally grown food.
“I think this is a time for disappointment but also hope and a refocus on all the things we need to be doing to rebuild a stronger community together,” Reily said.