Mayor Greg Fischer stood in front of the building at 17th and Maple street this fall during a press conference about STAR BioEnergy's anaerobic digester. | Photo by Caitlin Bowling
Mayor Greg Fischer stood in front of the building at 17th and Maple street this fall during a press conference about STAR BioEnergy’s anaerobic digester. | Photo by Caitlin Bowling

STAR BioEnergy has purchased the property at 17th and Maple streets where it originally planned to build a controversial anaerobic digester.

“This building is off the market, and it will never be for sale again unless I build a digester or give it back to the community,” said Steve Estes, CEO of STAR BioEnergy.

The Fort Wayne, Ind.-based alternative energy company paid $1.675 million for the 8.45-acre property in Louisville’s California neighborhood, according to a deed filed on Jan. 22. It includes the former Schenley Distillery building.

The seller was Heumann LLC, a company owned by William Heumann, founder and CEO of Jeffersonville, Ind.-based Heumann Environmental Co. Heumann bought the property in 1997 for $1.5 million.

Estes said he has new plans for the property that include an aquaponics facility, office space, a solar array and job training courses. His son, Shane Estes, will manage the building, and he expects to turn a profit in three years.

“We are going to make this a cool place,” he said.

Estes laid out the broad plans but could not provide greater details. He is still in negotiations with private businesses regarding possible partnerships, he said.

The aquaponics facility is expected to be 40,000-square-feet, Estes said, and will raise shrimp. STAR BioEnergy is hoping to partner with Kentucky State University, which offers an aquaculture program. Estes is in talks with commercial partners as well.

STAR BioEnergy also plans to install a 30-kilowatt solar array on the northeast side of the property and offer classes training local residents to install solar panels, as well as a lighting retrofit class. Estes said he is talking to four businesses about finding jobs for people who go through the training.

“Send those young adults into this to learn something that is not minimum wage, but better than average salary that would really allow them to take part in society and the economic benefits of the green economy,” he said.

Estes plans to get started on the new idea quickly: “We will have local people hired, working inside the building inside of 30 days.”

Louisville Metro Planning and Design Services did not return inquires about Land Development Code requirements related to the site by press time. However, Estes said the company does not need any special approvals from the city to move forward.

STAR BioEnergy will invest about $1 million in mostly cosmetic changes to the property and buildings, Estes said. “Some of the offices we just need to put some paint on the walls, and they can move in right way.”

In addition to the aforementioned operations, Estes said he is donating office space in the building to a startup service business called Louisville Concierge that will be moving in within the next few weeks.

STAR BioEnergy also is donating office space to the nonprofit ManUp, which Ray Barker co-chairs, and Kathleen Parks, head of the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression. Both originally were staunch opponents of the digester project but changed their stance.

Barker told Insider Louisville that once he was able to sit down with STAR BioEnergy representatives and learn the process, he came to believe it was a positive development for the neighborhood.

Room for expansion

Estes expects the 17th and Maple streets project to grow. He is still in negotiations with private companies and has not yet reached out to the Rev. Kevin Cosby, president of Simmons College of Kentucky, about a possible partnership.

STAR BioEnergy also is looking to buy the commercial buildings across Maple Street, as well as a couple other empty buildings in the neighborhood. “We have made offers on other properties,” Estes said.

A spokesperson for the digester opposition, Martina Kunnecke, said she will be interested to hear how neighborhood residents respond to “what seems like a series of great ideas for the neighborhood.”

She remained skeptical, however, stating that Estes does not inspire confidence.

“What he is doing still reeks of missionary work that west Louisville has not asked for,” said Kunnecke, who also is president of the advocacy group Neighborhood Planning & Preservation. “Why are we not encouraging local entrepreneurs to come up with ideas for these empty spaces in our neighborhood, and why aren’t these entrepreneurs coming out of west Louisville?”

Metro Councilman David James (D-6) was unaware of Estes’ plans when IL called him on Tuesday. Upon hearing details, he said that on its face he was supportive of the project.

“That’s a great idea, (but) I hope (Estes) is just not trying to sweeten the water so he can put a digester there,” James said.

Revival of the digester plans

Estes acknowledges he hasn’t given up on possibly building an anaerobic digester there in the future. Had the project moved forward, it would have been the company’s first digester; however, STAR BioEnergy’s parent company has sold several wind and solar farm projects.

“We hope by becoming good neighbors and listening to the advice of the council members who said show me you can build a digester elsewhere …that we can revisit that at the site in the future,” Estes said, later adding: “If the community stays adamantly opposed to the digester, I am fine” with not building it.

STAR BioEnergy is currently looking at other possible sites for a digester in Louisville.

Some council members, including James and Mary Woolridge (D-3), said they did not want to see the technology at the 17th and Maple streets site no matter what, arguing it had no place in a residential neighborhood.

“Let me send a warning out here right now. If you try to put it in anyone else’s neighborhood, I’ll be just as adamantly opposed and visible as I was when you tried to put it in west Louisville,” Woolridge said previously. “Because it does not, and I repeat, it does not need to be in a residential neighborhood.”

Estes questioned the priorities of the council members who opposed the digester, suggesting they were putting themselves first.

“Were they acting in the community’s best interest or their own best interest?” he said. “We feel the project is the best solution for everybody involved, and we would like the chance to prove that.”

Councilman James said he was insulted at the insinuation and that the comment showed how Estes felt about nearby residents and their concerns.

“There will never be a time that I will support putting a biodigester in a high-density area,” James said.

Kunnecke said she wasn’t surprised that Estes still hopes to construct a digester at the California site and encouraged leaders to consider a new policy that would dictate where digesters can be built.

Background

For those who haven’t followed this months-long saga, here is the CliffsNotes version:

The land was set to house an anaerobic digester, which would turn bourbon stillage from neighboring company Heaven Hill Distilleries into methane gas, but California residents and allies from other Louisville neighborhoods spoke out loudly against the technology. Opposition leaders said they generally liked the technology but did not believe it had a place in a residential neighborhood.

Eventually, several members of Louisville Metro Council and a prominent environmental lawyer started speaking out against STAR BioEnergy’s plans.

Before the company could move forward, the matter had to go before the Louisville Board of Zoning Adjustment. The initial meeting lasted eight hours, into the wee hours of the morning, but a decision wasn’t made.

A couple weeks before the zoning board was set to make its decision — one that would either allow STAR BioEnergy to build the digester or, at the very least, stall the project — the Indiana company canceled its plans. At the time, Estes indicated he still planned to build a digester at 17th and Maple streets once the dust settled but that the debate was too charged currently to move forward.

“We are not giving up on west Louisville or metro Louisville,” Estes previously told Insider Louisville. “We are not giving up; we are just pulling back.”

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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]