Extreme Makeover: Pondering ways to change South Louisville’s image

Robert Price doesn’t want to talk sour grapes when he advocates revitalizing Southwest Louisville, a place fraught with incessant anti-establishment whining that turns off many outsiders to its cause. Instead, the business owner began the conversation with warm childhood memories. 

“I was a paper boy out here,” he said, smiling. 

Birth of Spring: The former home of Dillard’s on Dixie Highway, this desolate site is representative to some of the city’s indifference toward South Louisville. It is expected to house a new Norton Hospital facility by next spring. Photo by Jane Mattingly

Birth of Spring: The former home of Dillard’s on Dixie Highway, this desolate site is representative to some of the city’s indifference toward South Louisville. It is expected to house a new Norton Hospital facility by next spring. Photo by Jane Mattingly

There’s been enough pessimism associated with the area, he added. And still, even Price’s optimism chilled to disappointment when he reflected on last year’s decision by the retail giant Kohl’s to abandon its plans to replace another retailer, Dillard’s, in the now-decaying Shively Manor. Presently, the vacated property is a community eyesore that sits at the doorway of South Louisville, just off the Watterson Expressway on Dixie Highway. It represents economic desertion, but it also serves a more philosophical purpose: It is a frustrating reminder to a community that constantly feels left out. 

“I was just livid,” Price said. “Another opportunity down the drain.”

For Price, who also serves as president of the Pleasure Ridge Park Business Association, the Kohl’s decision was the tipping point that inspired him to organize the Dream Team, a group determined to improve the area’s image and economic viability. 

“We’re trying to create a brand-new awareness in Southwest Louisville, to tell the community we’re open for business,” he said. 

Last week, the group held its inaugural meeting at Montgomery Honda. More than two-dozen residents, business owners and advocates showed up to raise a flag to the public and begin discussing options and strategies for revitalization. The meeting also featured a presentation from Kirt Jacobs, a well-known development officer with Metro’s economic development department, to discuss how to grow the Southwest; LEO called Jacobs’ office for a follow-up, but he was unavailable by press time. 

“A lot of people feel we’re the stepchild of the community,” said Steve Bittenbender, a former reporter for Business First who chairs the Dream Team’s marketing committee. Bittenbender was a vocal participant in last week’s meeting, pointing out marketing techniques while highlighting directions in the tide of a recessive economy. He told LEO that part of the image problem is the historical impression of Southwest Louisville being resistant to progress, punctuated by the nasty fights over restructuring the sewer systems and school busing in the 1970s.

“Image is crucial,” Bittenbender said. “Our reputation spreads to the rest of the community.” 

Others agreed there is a problem with perception, but said that business leaders in Louisville don’t have the right sources of information to know about the viability of the area. Metro Councilwoman Vicki Aubrey Welch, D-13, who attended last week’s meeting, noted that much of the research business owners use to plot new enterprises is based upon credit card purchases. 

“There is a higher percentage that pay with cash (in the district),” she said. 

Welch and others are hopeful that the Cash Economy Study, which was commissioned by the mayor’s office and is scheduled for release this month, would prove Welch’s assertion and, in turn, provide accurate data to area and national businesses. 

“We have new information in hand, (and) we can take that to businesses looking to expand or start up,” said Kerri Richardson, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office. Richardson said working with grassroots groups like the Dream Team is vital to building a solid foundation for redevelopment. The new data, she said, should strengthen arguments and presentations that South Louisville is a place with some of the city’s most active consumers.

Welch said she sees all of this as a blossoming opportunity for her district and other Southwest neighborhoods. “I hope developers see this,” she told LEO. “We deserve things in the South End as much as the East End.” 

One sign that redevelopment could be around the corner was the announcement earlier this year that Norton Hospital was buying the Men’s Department portion of the old Dillard’s building on Dixie. Norton plans to expand its primary and specialty care facilities, according to Bill Ritchie, vice president of operations for Norton Physician Services. Norton also plans to insert a new immediate care center. 

Ritchie said he believes other tenants will soon follow. He told LEO no date has been determined, but remodeling is expected to be finished no later than spring 2009. “We certainly hope this will ignite South Louisville,” he added. 

Working with a bumblebee’s enthusiasm and squirrel’s pace, Robert Price said he hopes the same. That’s why one of the first Dream Team tasks is creating a sign that captures Southwest Louisville’s best features at the Dixie-Watterson interchange. It may seem like another small-time act in a place where the big-time needs to step in, but you’ve got to start somewhere. 

“I just love the South End,” Price said. “I just want the best for my community.” 

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