Downtown revitalization driven by vittles

Feb 04, 2010

David Mudd Kentucky Omnivore

Lexington, KY - Some women just know how to talk to a guy. As North Carolina native Gill Holland recounts it, when he met Augusta Brown five years ago at a wedding, one of the first things she mentioned was her intention to soon return from New York, where both then lived, to her hometown of Louisville to establish a downtown open-air public food market along the lines of Cincinnati's 160-year-old Findlay Market and Pike Place Market in Seattle.

Not a pick-up line for the ages perhaps, but to a certain kind of man — a local foods columnist, let's say, or an independent film-maker/music producer/urban developer and community activist such as Holland — it ranks right up there with "Is that a gun in your pocket, cowboy, or are you just happy to see me?"

Holland was smitten by her grand vision, even though he knew little about Louisville and even less about food markets. Augusta Brown soon became Augusta Brown Holland. She also soon returned to Louisville, new husband in tow as well as fully on board, to start planning the first such public market downtown Louisville had seen in nearly 100 years.

As of now, the dream is less than two years from being realized. The Browns, now collaborating on this and other projects (including three children in as many years), said the market will be partially housed in an old tire company building they've purchased on East Jefferson Street. It will be home to butcher shops, bakers, cheese mongers, coffee roasters, wine shops, green grocers and other specialty food concerns — all with an emphasis on local and regional products. And that alone is exciting stuff. 

But along the way, the plan has changed and expanded in a process that might best be described as organic. Others heard about it, asked to be included and brought their own visions. Other properties opened up in the same area at prices hard to resist, encouraging the couple to think bigger; indeed, they've already refurbished another old building in the neighborhood following stringent eco-friendly standards that qualified it as Louisville's first LEED-certified commercial property. Restaurants and galleries have popped up independently in the neighborhood, with more to come. And a large fresh foods wholesale company announced plans to expand and relocate to the neighborhood after the city condemned its original location because it stands in the path of a planned new Ohio River bridge.

The couple realized there was more going on than any one building could house — even an open-air one. So their Jefferson Market plan has morphed into one for what they're now calling a Food District. And they've got a name for it: NuLu (a play on the accepted name, SoHo, for a trendy section south of Manhattan's Houston Street).

Fully realized, NuLu will take up at least four consecutive blocks and include Jefferson Market, as well as the expanded headquarters of restaurant and grocery supplier Creation Gardens, which will occupy two refurbished buildings, offer expanded retail operations, and broaden its commitment to buying from local and regional producers, its owners said. 

Holland said Jefferson Market will also find a way to accommodate rather than supplant the seasonal farmers' market already established in the neighborhood, by offering shelter that'll allow purveyors to extend their seasons and possibly become year-round independent operators within the market space.

"In just three years, you won't recognize this neighborhood," Holland told the Louisville Courier-Journal last year. He sticks by that view now, and he insisted the transformation is happening even faster than he predicted.

Key to that anticipated change and success is a return to a healthy concentration of downtown residents — enough people working and living in and near NuLu to support all its envisioned food retailers, wholesalers and restaurants. Holland can point to a half dozen residential developments near completion in just a few nearby blocks, promising those numbers will be there. 

And that brings up another interesting point, much closer to home. 

Lexington, too, is rapidly developing inner-city housing projects promising unprecedented numbers of 24-hour downtown residents. Presumably, they'll be capable of getting every bit as hungry as their counterparts to the west.

So can we look forward to a downtown Lexington open-air public food market, or perhaps even a food district?

To that, Harold Tate, director of Lexington's Downtown Development Authority, said downtown already boasts a food district in everything but name, anchored by the long-lived (though oft-relocated) Farmer's Market. Now that the market has been moved to the Cheapside area beside the old county courthouse and is about to break ground on a pavilion that'll provide it year-round shelter, that anchor's more solid than ever, he said.

And food establishments are taking note, Tate added.

"Everybody knows Dudley's restaurant is relocating to Cheapside, and only a couple of weeks ago, the Skybar opened in a penthouse just above Cheapside," Tate said. "Metropol, right across the street, is doubling its floor space; a new wine bar and restaurant's going in right across from it; and then there are all the existing places on Mill Street, in Victorian Square, and in Festival Market. And do I need to mention established places like Jonathan and a la lucie and Columbia's just around the corner? and Doodle's? and Atomic Cafe?"

Okay, but what about shopping outlets for local produce and artisanal cheeses, specialty meats, coffee and more?

"That's what the Farmer's Market is all about," Tate said. He acknowledged the market isn't an everyday presence downtown the way Jefferson Market in Louisville will be, but he said the pavilion will encourage current and prospective vendors to extend their hours and show up more often, because weather and daylight won't exert the kind of influence they now do on these truly "open air" enterprises.

As to the possibility of a public market space, Tate said such projects are usually driven by private businesses.

"Local government has been able to give a lot of encouragement and support to the Farmer's Market," he said, "but you won't see a government-driven effort to build a market like the one proposed in Louisville."

Still, Tate said he recognizes the expected rise in the numbers of downtown residents will argue for a steadier and more diverse supply of food items than even an expanded and fortified farmer's market can meet. And that has caused him to quietly approach at least one private business already established in Lexington and already involved in food distribution about establishing a downtown public market. 

No serious bites yet, he reported, but who knows? Nearby cities such as Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati already support open-air public markets in their downtowns, and Louisville's getting ready to do so. Can Lexington be far behind? 

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