The development of the 24-acre West Louisville FoodPort at 30th Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard stands as an example of community input gone right, particularly in light of the recent west Louisville anaerobic digester debacle — a case of community involvement gone awry.
Seed Capital KY, the nonprofit developing the FoodPort, hosted a meeting with more than 350 Louisville residents in February 2013 to present the results of a study that looked at Louisville’s food demand, according to its website. Residents also participated in a talk about how to fill that demand.
About two years later, Seed Capital KY formed a community council, which today has more than 80 members who meet monthly. The council, which includes residents, business owners, nonprofit leaders and Metro Government employees, keeps residents in the Shawnee and surrounding neighborhoods apprised of the FoodPort’s progress, offers input on various ideas, and develops community-related goals tied to the project.
Community council member and Shawnee Neighborhood Association president Bonnie Cole said she first became involved in 2014 when Seed Capital KY co-founder and project director Caroline Heine reached out. Heine explained the idea behind the FoodPort to Cole and Shawnee Neighborhood Association vice president Rudy Davidson.
“Rudy and I sat there looking at each other like ‘mhmm,’” said Cole, who recently was named to Seed Capital KY’s board of directors. “(Heine) wanted community input from the beginning, so that was something that we said, ‘Wow, this is really going to be something.’ I don’t know any other state that is going to have something like we have. It is not only going to benefit west Louisville, it’s going to benefit the state.”
To-date, the West Louisville FoodPort will include a collection, distribution and packaging operation for regional farmers; a community garden; a farmers market; retail space; a playground and common area for neighborhood residents; and opportunities for educational courses.
The FoodPort originally was supposed to include an anaerobic digester, but plans for that were dropped after west Louisville residents rallied against it. Well before that, however, Cole said, Heine informed the council that the digester could be deleted from the plans.
“She told us that if the (digester) becomes that much of an issue at West Louisville FoodPort, then she would pull it,” Cole said. “When she made that announcement, we already knew where her heart was at. She said she didn’t want anything that is going to destroy west Louisville and separate people.”
At FoodPort Harvest Fest in October, west Louisville residents told Cole they were excited to see the 24-acre property, which has sat vacant since late 2009, come back to life.
“Along with vacant and abandoned lots comes criminal activities, safety issues; it brings down the property tax value. Nobody wants to move into the neighborhood because of that,” she said.
Residents also noted Seed Capital KY’s effort to include neighbors in the process, Cole said. “They were so happy because they went door to door and talked to them.”
Throughout the development of the FoodPort, government and Seed Capital KY leaders have talked about their vision for west Louisville and the Shawnee neighborhood, where the FoodPort will be located. So Insider Louisville asked Cole about her vision for Shawnee.
“I am hoping that by having the West Louisville FoodPort, this will allow other companies to come down and invest in our neighborhood. I tell everybody this is our jewel that is going to allow us to shine,” Cole said.
The FoodPort will create more than 300 jobs that are expected to pay more than minimum wage. Cole hopes that will encourage west Louisvillians to seek out job training to help them secure one of the positions.
“There are people in west Louisville who have given up on finding employment,” she said.
Cole noted that many west Louisville residents currently must travel outside their neighborhoods for employment, and many work in low-wage jobs. Once the FoodPort is open, residents will have an option for work inside their community and may be able to save money to buy their own home, she said.
Construction on the FoodPort is slated to begin this June, but about half of the funding for the project is still in limbo.
Seed Capital KY has raised $4 million in grant funds for the West Louisville FoodPort and is looking for another $4 million in grants to help cover the estimated $31 million project cost, Heine said. The nonprofit also has $10 million in debt committed to the project and is expecting to hear in early summer if it has secured any federal New Market Tax Credits — something it was unable to do last year.
Seed Capital KY also is looking for possible funding from the Kentucky Department of Agriculture and the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, she said.
Securing for-profit, nonprofit partners
Seed Capital KY has partnered with food processing company KHI Foods, cold-pressed juice store The Weekly Juicery, dehydrated food company JustOne Organics, food distributor Piazza Produce and educational organization Jefferson County Cooperative Extension. All will have operations at the FoodPort once the first phase opens in September 2017.
The nonprofit recently announced a new partnership with Illinois-based vertical farming company FarmedHere, which plans to build a $23.5 million facility at the FoodPort.
FarmedHere’s facility cost brings the total investment in the FoodPort to roughly $54.5 million, Heine said.
At an event to celebrate FarmedHere, Bethany Pratt, a Portland resident and member of the community council, referred to the company as a neighbor and said council members were excited to hear the company plans to fill its 40 positions with mostly veterans, refugees and ex-offenders looking for a second chance.
“It was a no-brainer for us (to come to Louisville),” said Matt Matros, CEO of FarmedHere.
“But we didn’t tell the state that,” he joked after the company received preliminary approval Thursday for $400,000 in tax incentives from the Kentucky Economic Development Finance Authority.
Matros talked about how vertical farming allows people to grow produce in a nontraditional environment, even going as far as to say that vertical farming will be the standard for food production when Tesla Motors and Space X CEO Elon Musk colonizes Mars.
“We really solve a few of the big problems of agriculture. First, we use 97 percent less water than traditional farming because all the water gets recirculated,” Matros said. “Number two, we are local, so we grow and can harvest and get it to your back door in 24 hours, which is a pretty big deal, whereas produce that comes from California may take two weeks to get to you. …We are also organic, so we’re removing pesticides from the system, and the list goes on and on and on.”
One acre of vertical farming equals 30 acres outdoors, he said. The 60,000-square-foot facility at the West Louisville FoodPort will grow 1 million pounds of fresh produce annually that will then be sold or used in products such as baby food, soups and cold-pressed juices.
FarmedHere, which has one farm in Chicago, eventually would like to run 18 vertical farms across the United States. Matros said they stumbled upon Louisville while searching for new opportunities.
“What we do is we take old buildings, and we like to repurpose them, so I said, ‘There’s got to be someone already doing this,’ and it didn’t take too many Google searches to land on the FoodPort,” he said. “We knew we were looking for a project like this, and it just sort of was a match made in heaven. I couldn’t imagine a better project to be a part of, and I tell Caroline [Heine] all the time, this is going to be a model that other cities are going to follow, and the fact that they can be the first, the pioneer is pretty exciting for them.”
FarmedHere will work with Piazza Produce to distribute its food but also plans to allow residents in to tour the facility and try their produce.
“We like to build big, beautiful showrooms — showrooms where people can come see what hydroponic farming is. That is what we plan on doing, inviting people out, being a part of that community,” Matros said. “I like to say we are building Willy Wonka’s produce factory.”