(Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of profile interviews/Q&As with the people who are shaping Louisville – developers, entrepreneurs, and investors.)
As former President George H.W. Bush so eloquently phrased it, “It’s the vision thing.”
Not everyone has it. In fact, very few Louisville leaders have it, which may be why we’re not growing.
But, Steve Poe, CEO of Louisville-based developer The Poe Companies, has it.
Poe, like CITY Properties Managing Partner Bill Weyland, is one of Louisville’s transformers. Poe and Weyland together have done more transformative downtown projects than we have room to list here.
In any other city, the stretch of River Road along the Ohio River from Zorn Avenue into downtown would have long ago been lined with housing and restaurants.
Only now is Louisville getting back to its roots as a river town, with Poe the lone residential/retail developer so far cozying up to Louisville Waterfront Park and the Big Four Bridge.
In September, Poe stood with Metro Mayor Greg Fischer and other Louisville officials as he announced a second phase of development at RiverPark Place, a phase that will – by next year – add 162 new apartment units to the existing 167 units and marina.
Today, Poe announced a new 9,000-square-foot restaurant on the property to be developed by members of the Doc Crow’s restaurant development group. (We broke the story in the May 27 Monday Business Briefing, and the restaurant still doesn’t have a name.)
The owners of the to-be-named restaurant are Michael Ton, Steven Ton, Brett Davis and Chip Hamm, who separately and together have developed Basa Restaurant in Clifton, Doc Crow’s Southern Smokehouse and Raw Bar on Main Street, and La Coop bistro in NuLu. Chef Bobby Benjamin, late of the Oak Room at the Seelbach Hilton Hotel, also is part of the ownership group.
Poe also announced the addition of an 11-story apartment tower at the RiverPark Place complex. The tower will have ground floor retail, two floors of Class-A office space totaling 30,000 square feet and 72 luxury apartments, including four penthouses.
He’s been here before.
Poe was a partner in the never-built Museum Plaza. Back in 2005, he announced what is now RiverPark Place as an ambitious $200 million project with 600 condos, office space, a marina, and recreational areas modeled on waterfront projects in cities such as Boston.
An ambitious project stalled by the utter collapse of the U.S. housing market.
A fact to which he alluded in September, saying his announcement of the 2013 project was the ground-breaking speech he intended to give pre-Great Recession. “We’re just six years late.”
Poe, like all successful developers, just sees risk differently. And he tends to see what’s going on downtown differently than we do, praising the KFC Yum! Center effusively as a key to the transformation of downtown, a transformation he sees as accelerating, with the cost of the arena – and financial risk for the city – ultimately worth it.
Poe sat down with IL in September to talk about his take on where Louisville is, and how we got here. We held the interview because we knew the restaurant announcement was coming. The cat finally is out of the bag, so here we go.
The following Q&A was edited for length and continuity.
Insider Louisville: A lot of time our readers think downtown is stalled. Do you agree?
Steve Poe: I can tell you that when we were trying to get Marriott executives to buy into what was a good idea – to build a new 600-room hotel in downtown Louisville – in 2003, at 7 o’clock at night on any major street downtown, you couldn’t find one person.
As a matter of fact, I can tell you we tried to schedule all the Marriott executives’ site visits such that they landed at 8 o’clock in the morning, and we had them out of here at 5 o’clock at night. Because the block we were showing them to build that facility on was the Porno Block.
You come downtown now, any night of the week, and there’s something going on. There’s no one thing other than we have continued to make positive momentum.
I really think Louisville is poised as we come out of the (economic downturn) … that downtown … more things are going to get done. What we can’t do is lose momentum. The convention center is a huge piece of keeping the momentum. We also keep the momentum by things like finding $13 million for the streetscape up and down Market Street.
A bipartisan effort in Frankfort.
Bipartisan. Those things all add up to make a difference. Look, I remember when 21C (Museum Hotel) wasn’t there. You went down to that end of the (Main Street) block. When you went down there, you took a long hike to get to the end of the block and the Slugger Museum. There wasn’t anything there.
That’s been the biggest change since I’ve been back (from Europe). Where so much of the activity is headed. The Paganos have bought properties there. Everyone and their brother is trying to figure out how to leverage that momentum. But the convention center? I don’t think anyone is enthusiastic about an expansion plan that closes Third Street.
The second option actually simplifies things … I’m not on the (Convention and Visitors Bureau) board nor am I on the Fair Board … but I think the second plan, expanding the convention to get one big space on the second floor and one very good entrance on Fourth Street, easy to get in and out of …. I think that would put us right back in the game on a competitive basis.
IL is unapologetically pro-growth. We need the Steve Poes and the Bill Weylands and the Gill Hollands … we need the private sector to lead the way. You make things happen. The city planners and academicians …. they can talk until the cows come home.
I agree. But big decisions and big ideas … Go down to the Waterfront Develop Corp. office and there’s a big photo of the (Louisville downtown waterfront) land prior to building the park.
David Blue’s scrapyard.
Yep. This all started with the big idea we could actually put a park downtown. Our elected leaders worked with private (investors) and they all took a stand and they said, “We’re all going to make this happen.” People said, “Why are you doing that? All you’re getting ready to do is make a bunch of junk dealers rich. Because, we have Seneca; we have Cherokee; we have Iroquois. We have all these great parks designed by Olmsted. So let’s say you guys are right and we build a park downtown. Who the hell’s going to come anyway?”
That was what was said.
Those leaders stuck together – put out a huge, bold vision and plan. Stuck with it. Worked together. And look what we have today.
When we get done with RiverPark Place … and I hate to say this in real estate; you jinx yourself …. but it’s over a billion and a half dollar deal! I’m not going to put a billion and a half dollars there over 10 or 15 years without the park being there!
So, they took the initiative only a private-public partnership could do. Cleaned something up. Spent a lot of money and we got a result that then has springboarded into downtown. I’m going to connect that back to the arena.
There were those who said, “Why don’t we put it on the Water Company block? Why are we doing it on the LG&E site?” and all that kind of stuff.
I’ll answer very simply.
The Water Company block could be developed by me. It could be developed by Cordish. It could be developed by a lot of people. Okay.
None of us. None of us private guys would have ever touched the LG&E site. The only (entity) that could have dealt with it was some kind of public/private partnership that had state, federal and city participation. That had access to those resources.
Today, I think the decision has proven out right because the Water Company block, which was not developed because of The Recession, becomes a key block to develop, especially in the future. And especially if we expand the convention center.
Main Street was on a roll. But (the arena) is one more piece of the puzzle with tourism going up and down Main Street.
If you span from 1985 to 2007, and it takes continuous investment from the public sector, who’s listening to the private sectors as to what we need? Partnerships to make things like that happen.
So, what about the local option sales tax. Do you support it?
I went with the mayor last year to Oklahoma City on the GLIDE trip. And by the way, I’m for the (local option) sales tax. I sat and listened to the Oklahoma City mayor, who’s a great speaker. We saw all the great things they have. Obviously, Oklahoma City has oil and gas. We don’t have oil and gas.
They told us how they used the option tax to build their arena and do this and do that. They’re working on the parks system.
I looked at it and said, “Wow, look what we’ve done in spite of not having the tax.” We have the arena. We have one of the best urban waterfront parks in the world. We have a real bourbon trail that just does nothing but get better. We have science centers. We have Louisville Slugger (Museum.) We have a lot of great things!”