Gill Holland, outside the Anchor Building, his Portland HQ. | Photo by Mark R. Long

Halfway into a 10-year plan to revitalize the Portland neighborhood, Gill Holland has grander ambitions.

His four-pronged Portland Investment Initiative has raised $30 million — surpassing his goal of $24 million set in 2013. Now, the film producer and developer is quadrupling his target, aiming to raise and invest a total of $100 million in a raft of projects by the middle of 2023.

“We are further along after five-plus-a-little-bit years than I thought we were going to be after 10 years,” Holland said in an interview at his Portland HQ — a former Boys & Girls Club he calls the Anchor Building.

After leading the revamp of the area he dubbed NuLu a decade ago, Holland shifted his sights three miles west. PII aimed to redevelop warehouses, spur investment around the intersection of 26th and Portland Avenue, renovate vacant and abandoned houses and back the building of modern shotgun houses on vacant lots.

The shotgun renovations proved challenging, but the warehouse district has attracted UofL’s MFA studios, a Mercedes-Benz training center and several other new businesses and investments.

Holland says the full occupancy of the Dolfinger building in the “Portland Stroll District” has bolstered his confidence in the neighborhood, where he’s overcome much initial skepticism from residents.

The federal Opportunity Zone program, which offers tax breaks in exchange for investment in low-income areas, also holds promise for Portland, he said. “With Opportunity Zones, now it seems like 70 (million dollars) is highly gettable … if we got 30 in the first years when it was the hardest.”

The full occupancy of the Dolfinger building, formerly the Montgomery Street School, is one factor bolstering Holland’s confidence. | Photo courtesy of Portland Investment Initiative

Shotgun Shift

Not every facet of the plan is beating expectations. Holland, who turned 54 last week, is changing tack with one core element of his Portland strategy: the renovation of vacant and abandoned properties, or VAPs, particularly shotgun houses. This past spring, PII sold its dozen shotguns and three other properties in a $1.4 million deal to the local businessman and philanthropist Ted Nixon, and his sister, Edie. Holland had hoped to raise $2 million and refurbish 25-to-40 VAPs over 10 years.

“It’s a slow slog doing the shotgun renovations,” with sporadic funding forcing piecemeal rehabs rather than more-easily planned, multi-property overhauls, Holland said. “It’s been a very arduous process.”

Holland and partners in the shotgun renovations are investing most of the proceeds from the sale to Nixon in a new, mixed-use, 16-unit apartment building on the corner of Bank and 17th streets.

Still, Holland reckons the shotgun effort was one of the most effective moves to enliven the area and bump up property valuations, as shown by the sale of the 12 shotguns for an average of $86,000 apiece. This is important because low valuations typically deter banks from lending sufficient funds to cover both purchases and gut renovations, which can run to $80,000 for derelict houses.

Holland said he now hopes to see 100 VAPs renovated by the middle of 2023, but “I am assuming that we will not be the developer partner in all of this. There are lots of other people coming in doing them. ” Opportunity Zone funding could be especially helpful for this effort, he added.

Ted Nixon, the chief executive of DDW, a global maker of natural food colorings, said the purchase fits with his larger aims to help revive the West End. Nixon, 66, sits on the boards of Portland’s Neighborhood House community center and the Steering Committee for Action on Louisville’s Agenda, or SCALA. He said his aim isn’t to raise rents, which average around $650 a month, but to eventually sell the homes to tenant families.

“We don’t need the rents up,” Nixon said. “My goal is to (help) people who have had the dream of homeownership, but have never been able to own a house, to be able to do it.”

Avoiding ‘the G word’

Portland is vast compared with NuLu, with many more people, including some of the city’s poorest. Skepticism and some rude graffiti greeted him when he arrived in the neighborhood, Holland said.

For many years, “we had very little investment from the private sector, except predatory,” said Judy Schroeder, a fifth-generation Portland resident who’s on the board of the neighborhood association, Portland Now.

“There are concerns about the negative effects that can happen because of gentrification,” she said. “But the thrill that the neighborhood is actually revitalizing — bringing in some new blood and new residents — is high.”

Schroeder and Portland Now President Kerrie Clifford both said efforts to attract businesses and residents were nothing new. “Gill coming in to the neighborhood was just another big catalyst. He enhanced the efforts that were already under way,” said Clifford, who has lived in Portland for about 30 years.

Holland and Nixon said they want to avoid the problems faced by longtime residents in other fast-gentrifying areas, like San Francisco and Brooklyn — and parts of Louisville. “You want to hopefully have a good cross-section of the community,” Nixon said. “We want to make sure we can maintain a good mix of people there.”

Portland’s size and relatively low density, plus the large number of abandoned properties, help mitigate some risks, Holland and some residents say.

“You’re never going to see gentrification down here, for various reasons,” said Stephen Pate, a Chicago native who moved to Portland in 2012. “One of them is the time of neglect in the area, and the other is the sheer size of it.”

Even so, Pate said he’s seen absentee landlords buying properties, seeking higher rents. “Unfortunately, a lot of that has to happen for the neighborhood to start improving.”

Holland has earmarked an acre next to the Dolfinger building for a 24-unit, low-income apartment building. He expects to find out whether it will be financed within a few weeks.

“Affordable housing is extremely complicated and I’ve learned a lot, I’m still learning a lot,” he said. “On one level I’m amazed that any of it ever gets built.”

Michael L. Jones contributed to this article.

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Mark R. Long
Louisville native Mark Long is glad to be home after 18+ years away in New York and London. He’s putting his writing and editing experience at The Wall Street Journal to work as a freelancer, digging into stories on infrastructure, transportation, urban design and ecology.