Mayor Greg Fischer touted STAR BioEnergy's commitment to invest $5 million in west Louisville. | Photo by Caitlin Bowling
Mayor Greg Fischer touted STAR BioEnergy’s commitment to invest $5 million in west Louisville. | Photo by Caitlin Bowling

As west Louisville leaders walked up to the podium at Thursday’s press conference at the former Schenley Distillery, they weren’t trying to convince fellow residents that the proposed methane plant at 17th Street was a positive project for the surrounding neighborhoods. They were attempting to convince them that some money is better than no money at all.

“Would you rather this company be here and at least offer you some kind of benefits for your community or would you rather them be here and not offer benefits?” asked Louisville Metro Councilwoman Mary Woolridge (D-3).

From the start, Woolridge has opposed a proposed anaerobic digester project in west Louisville. However, during the press conference, she changed her position to “reluctantly supporting.”

Indiana-based company STAR BioEnergy has stirred up controversy with its plans to build a $32 million anaerobic digester, which would turn stillage from Heaven Hill Distilleries and food waste into methane gas. The digester, sometimes referred to as a methane plant, is proposed at an 8.45-acre site at 17th and Maple streets.

STAR BioEnergy is the same company as Nature’s Methane; it’s simply a new name. Nature’s Methane was dropped because of a negative connotation attributed to the word methane, according to Brian Zoeller of Bingham Greenebaum Doll LLP.

Although the name has changed, the opinion of a number of west Louisville residents has not. IL has written several stories detailing concerns about smell, safety and potential health hazards.

After months of community meetings, the opposition has remained just as strong. Now, however, STAR BioEnergy has come forward with an offer to give west Louisville $5 million for community-building initiatives.

The first $500,000 will come when ground is broken on the digester; the next $500,000 when the digester starts operating; and another $2.5 million will be doled out in $250,000 increments over a 10-year period.

The money will go into a West Louisville Community Benefits Fund overseen by the Community Foundation of Louisville, and a committee comprised of community leaders will use the funding to award grants to projects that benefit west Louisville.

STAR BioEnergy also will donate the former Schenley Distillery building at 822 S. 17th St. and about 4 acres of adjacent land to the community — a $1.5 million value — to be used for job training, college instruction, community center offices, urban gardening and/or athletic facilities.

“No expectations” tied to $5 million investment

The press conference Thursday morning was to announce the “unprecedented” $5 million gift “that the rest of the country can look to and say this is how it should be done,” said Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer.

An opponent of the digester holds a sign calling out Mayor Fischer. | Photo by Caitlin Bowling
An opponent of the digester holds a sign calling out Mayor Fischer. | Photo by Caitlin Bowling

As Fischer spoke about the project — how it will divert waste from Louisville’s landfills, how an on-site air monitoring system will ensure pollutants aren’t released, and how west Louisville’s community gardens will benefit from free fertilizer produced by the digester — a woman stood to his far right holding a sign that read “Greg Fischer, you have proven you feel Black Lives Don’t Matter.”

When members of the crowd shouted that Fischer should build the digester in his backyard and that west Louisville didn’t want it, he remained stone-faced.

Several times he told attendees that STAR BioEnergy chose to give $5 million to the community even though they did not have to and repeatedly noted that the agreement will be binding, meaning no broken promises, he said.

“This will not be the case here,” Fischer said.

The digester project will go before Louisville’s Board of Zoning Adjustment in about two weeks for approvals.

A story in The Courier-Journal on Wednesday was the first time any public mention was made about setting up a fund to benefit the predominately African-American West End. When IL asked if STAR BioEnergy expected anything in return for creating the fund, Zoeller replied no.

“This is the right thing to do,” he said.

Zoeller said he could not comment on whether a fund would be created if the project were moved elsewhere. “Each situation is different and this is what we can do with this project.”

West Louisville reps call out STAR BioEnergy, Mayor Fischer

Most press conferences about economic investment feature a line-up of speakers who talk about the positive effects on the city and rally together in support, but the only two west Louisville residents who spoke Thursday — Woolridge and the Rev. Kevin Cosby — were not bullish on the project. They were resigned.

Councilwoman Woolridge said she was behind the $5 million deal and contacted Star Energy about what the company planned to do to benefit west Louisville. She also requested that the agreement be binding so the company couldn’t renege on what it promised.

Woolridge said she saw the writing on the wall. The grassroots opposition from west Louisville residents wouldn’t be able to stop STAR BioEnergy from receiving all the necessary permits for its digester project because city leaders from outside the West End valued the investment over residents’ opinions.

“It sends another message to west Louisville that their concerns are secondary to the almighty dollar,” Woolridge said.

Rev. Cosby offered no opinion on the project itself but talked about the historic disinvestment that west Louisville has seen.

“The only things we can seem to get in our community are stores that have ‘Dollar’ in it,” said Cosby, president of Simmons College, a historically black college on the border of the Old Louisville and California neighborhoods.

While at the podium, Mayor Fischer called Heaven Hill Distilleries, a partner in the digester project, a good corporate citizen. When Cosby spoke, he took a shot a Fischer’s comment.

Up until recently, Cosby said, executives with Heaven Hill Distilleries had never called him or invited him to tour their distillery, despite the fact that he has long been a West End resident.

“You should have called me and had reciprocity with the community years ago,” Cosby told Heaven Hill executives.

When Heaven Hill Chief Operating Officer Allen Latts apologized, Cosby responded, “Just do what you say you going to do.”

Cosby noted that the $5 million will be good for the collective community and that Simmons College couldn’t turn down the donation of a new facility.

“I need that money, and I need that facility because Simmons is the fastest-growing (college) in Kentucky,” he said.

However, he also told the crowd that STAR BioEnergy representatives tried to change the terms of the agreement when Cosby showed up for the press conference. It was his understanding that Simmons College would own the Schenley Distillery and work with Kentucky State University on programming for that site, but that may not be the case.

“I just know we were made a promise,” Cosby said.

Shown is the building Rev. Kevin Cosby says Simmons College was promised. | Photo by Caitlin Bowling
Shown is the building Rev. Kevin Cosby says Simmons College was promised. | Photo by Caitlin Bowling

Zoeller, attorney for STAR BioEnergy, told the media after the conference that specifics of the deal are still being worked out.

“We are committed to that gift. We are committed to working with Rev. Cosby. We are committed to working with Kentucky State on how best to structure that (deal),” he said. “(Simmons College) may or may not own the building. We are still working out the details on that.”

Mayor Fischer also declined to say whether Simmons College was promised ownership of the former distillery building.

“It would really be sad if there was a deal point in here that some party couldn’t come to  agreement with from all involved for the betterment of the community,” he said.

Fischer said he will remain involved in the discussions if necessary.

“My role is to broker on behalf of the community, and if I need to be involved as I have been, then I will be,” he said. “The city’s responsibility is to make sure that as many people can benefit from this as possible, and so that requires pushing and pulling some folks.

“You can see how STAR and Heaven Hill have responded. You can see how the community participants have responded in terms of thinking this is a fair conclusion.”

Opposition remains against digester

But the mayor’s thoughts on how the process has transpired differs from how some west Louisville residents feel.

“This community is still against this,” said resident Denita Wright, asking who the “so-called leaders” were that brokered the deal with STAR BioEnergy.

Many of those leaders were members of the Interdenominational Ministerial Coalition in west Louisville, including Rev. Cosby and Rev. Charles Elliott, as well as Councilwoman Woolridge.

“It should have been brought to the community,” said Donovan Taylor, president of the Chickasaw Neighborhood Federation and an associate with the law firm Williams & Associates LLC.

Below are excerpts from a Nov. 4 letter the California Neighborhood Leadership Council Inc. sent to The Courier-Journal:

The Officers, Resident Coordinators and Members of the California Neighborhood Leadership Council Inc. are appalled by the way we residents of the California Neighborhood have been treated and left out of decisions that involve our neighborhood regarding the location of the Heaven Hill Distillery Methane Plant. Who in their right mind would want a gas methane biodigester right outside of their front door. Are you kidding me?

It continues:

The voice is with both the California Neighborhood Leadership Council Inc. and the California Neighborhood Coalition Inc., who are made up of California neighborhood leaders, businesses and residents. No one has ever contacted either group concerning this issue and we are fed up to here with outsiders coming in and making decisions on our behalf; and deciding what is good for us without even the common courtesy of contacting us.

A rendering of the proposed anaerobic digester | Courtesy of Star Energy Distributed
A rendering of the proposed anaerobic digester | Courtesy of Star Energy Distributed

Could a lawsuit be on the way?

West Louisville activists have repeatedly stated that if the digester were proposed elsewhere in the city, like the East End, powerful residents would have pulled strings with the city to ensure it never got built.

If this had been proposed in the Portland neighborhood, west Louisville’s only predominately white neighborhood, “all hell would have broken loose,” said John Owen, vice president of the Portland Business Association.

The $5 million gift “is typical backdoor politics,” Owen said. “As mad as these people are, they are going to find them a lawyer and file an injunction.”

He noted the pending lawsuit against the proposed Walmart on West Broadway.

IL asked preservation activist Martina Kunnecke, an opponent of the digester and plaintiff in the Walmart lawsuit, if she and others were considering filing a lawsuit.

“We are going to look at all of our possibilities,” she said.

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Caitlin Bowling
Louisville native Caitlin Bowling has covered the local restaurant and retail scene since 2014. After graduating from the Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, Caitlin got her start at a newspaper in the mountains of North Carolina where she won multiple state awards for her reporting. Since returning to Louisville, she’s written for Business First and Insider Louisville, winning awards for health and business reporting and becoming a go-to source for business news. In addition to restaurants and retail business, Caitlin covers real estate, economic development and tourism. Email Caitlin at [email protected]