Conversations about west Louisville usually center around the things that are coming to the area, but Evon Smith wants to get people talking about what is already there.
Smith is president and chief executive of the economic development nonprofit OneWest, which attracts commercial and retail development to the historically underserved West End by focusing the area’s built environment.
West Louisville consists of nine neighborhoods: Algonquin, Park Hill, Park Duvalle, Chickasaw, Shawnee, Portland, California, Parkland and Russell. These neighborhoods once made up a thriving community full of retail and commercial space.
In the early 20th century, Muhammad Ali Boulevard between Sixth and 15th streets was home to the old Walnut Street Business District where many African Americans operated retail stores, service-related businesses, nightclubs and restaurants, but the area was decimated in the late 1950s by an urban renewal program that tore down many of the community’s original structures. Afterward, redlining, the practice of denying economic resources to an particular area, further depleted the West End business base.
Today, west Louisville has a population of about 60,000, mostly African-American, residents and more than $500 million a year in spending power. But $217 million is spent outside the community, according to a study commissioned by OneWest, because of the dearth of businesses.
OneWest has a five-year plan to start changing this situation.
OneWest is currently focused on the 18th Street and west Broadway corridor where a new YMCA and the Passport Health Plan campus are under construction. The organization is acquiring properties near the sites that could house businesses that would serve their employees and guests.
Smith’s first step in the plan, however, was to organize a clean-up program for the area.
“We have to model what we want to be. We have to show that west Louisville can be a well-kept community. We plan to hire two or three people to clean-up trash along west Broadway in tandem with area businesses. In some cases, we have businesses that have volunteered to take care of whole blocks,” she said.
G.C. Williams Funeral Home, 1935 W. Broadway, was one of the first to join the clean-up effort. Mortician Chris Washburn said the funeral home already had someone picking up trash on its property and the two lots on either side of it, but they welcomed the community effort as a chance for relationship building.
“You can see the results of the clean-up program on the blocks around us. The businesses in this area are excited about the changes happening in the community. I think this clean-up is giving people a chance to show their support,” Washburn stated.
OneWest plans to continue its strategy of focusing on areas that already have economic development projects to build around. Its five-year plan calls for it to move deeper into the Russell neighborhood, where the city is using a $30 million federal grant to redevelop the Beecher Terrace housing development, and California, where Simmons College of Kentucky has made a significant investment in recent years.
Drawing on past experience
OneWest was conceived by members of Leadership Louisville’s 2014 Bingham Fellows Class specifically to jump-start an economic renaissance in west Louisville. Smith took over the organization in January after a nationwide search for a leader.
Smith has experience redeveloping distressed communities like west Louisville. She spent 14 years in banking, including time as president of a credit union, and served as director of economic development organizations in Greensboro and Winston-Salem, N.C.
In Greensboro, she helped to locate a research park in an underserved community. The project has generated more than $600 million in investments in the area to date.
“I had models because we had black Wall Streets in Durham, we had black Wall Streets in Wilmington. When you study history, those centers of commerce had originally been there in the late 1800s and early 1900s. There were still some legacies in those communities and people who remembered those stories. As a result, I felt like we could recreate that. It should be easier in Louisville because a lot of the groundwork has already been done,” Smith explained.
The Springfield, Mass. native credits social activism with putting her on the path to community economic development. When Smith was 14, her family moved from the metropolitan city of Springfield to the one-stoplight town of Warsaw, N.C. with a population just over 3,000. The poverty she saw in rural eastern North Carolina stayed with Smith after she moved to Raleigh to attend Shaw University.
“Going to Raleigh and getting into banking, I began to understand how assets are applied to the balance sheet and how people with resources look at low-resource communities and where they put their money,” Smith explained.
While participating in Harvard’s Executive Leadership Training program in 2007, Smith began to put some of her ideas down on paper. She wanted to figure out how to use her knowledge to revitalize communities with few resources. The writing became sort of a template for how she would conduct her professional career.
“I became a high producer at the bank because nobody was focused on the minority market. I could bring two majority loans to the table, or affluent loans, and one from the minority community. Most often they would be very similar in nature. My peers weren’t thinking of crossing over to the redlined districts. I was, and it made it very difficult for the bank to deny those requests because then they would have to address the issue of redlining,” she said.
Her experience in banking, economic development and campaigning for women and minority business inclusion give a unique perspective on West End redevelopment.
“You can say I speak a lot of different languages. I am hoping to be the glue or the conduit that brings together the various factions in west Louisville,” Smith said.
Bonnie Cole, president of the Shawnee Neighborhood Association, said she’s happy with what she has seen so far. Smith has been responsive to residents’ concerns, and the two have talked about having the OneWest executive address the neighborhood association, Cole said.
Smith moved to Louisville with her teenage daughter who is attending DuPont Manual High School. She has another daughter who is away at college. None of them knew much about Louisville when a corporate recruiter approached Smith about the OneWest job last year.
Smith said she originally listened to the pitch because she had a friend from Louisville who told her good things about the city, but she committed because she saw an opportunity.
“It was the ability to make a difference in a much larger footprint [than Winston-Salem] with a group that had already done the heavy lifting of getting the community on board and getting the resources to the table. I thought, ‘What can I do with all those resources in place?’ ”
Correction: This post has been updated to correct the population of west Louisville.