Heading West

Aug 27 2013


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Dan and Susan Rhema recently purchased property on the corner of 17th and West Market where they plan to live and work. The property was a longtime home to The HUB, a retail store that carried men’s clothing and accessories. The couple will renovate the buildings and rent space to tenants. They hope to move in six months, and plan to open their respective businesses within a year. (Photo: brianbohannon.com)Dan and Susan Rhema had a long list of prerequisites when they started searching for a building six months ago. Susan, a psychotherapist, will receive her doctorate in social work in December. She wanted a place large enough to accommodate the Three Stones Center, a trauma facility she plans to open, and a gallery for Dan, who is a visionary artist. In addition, many of Susan’s patients are immigrants and refugees, so the building had to be on a bus line and, ideally, close to downtown. Lastly, the couple planned to finance their ventures by selling their Old Louisville home, so they also needed living space.

With all of these requirements, the Rhemas knew their options were limited, especially if they also wanted to find the property at an affordable price. They looked in Butchertown, Smoketown, and at several places along Broadway. Finally, they settled on two buildings near the border of the Russell and Portland neighborhoods – 1701 and 1703 W. Market St.

The buildings had been connected when they housed The HUB department store, but the Rhemas plan on returning them to separate properties. One building will house Susan’s trauma center and Dan’s art gallery, Altered Visions Art, and the couple will live on the remaining two floors. The second building will be rental property. Henry Yoffee, The HUB’s owner, has talked to the Rhemas about leasing space for a smaller version of his store. Dan Rhema likes the idea because he says the building has housed millinery or clothing stores for the last 100 years. There will also be two apartments above the store.

The Rhemas got all of this for a whopping $64,000. The combined rents should cover their mortgage. Dan says it is a deal you can only find in West Louisville these days.

“Not being from Louisville, we didn’t have any negative connotations about West Louisville or Portland,” he says. “When people think about Louisville it is not just one entity, it’s made up of all of these little components of neighborhoods: the Highlands, Frankfort Avenue. This is just another part of Louisville that is in need of some money being put into it.”  

Dan plans to do most of the work on the two properties himself, but Shine Contracting will handle some of it. Dan grew up in public housing in Baltimore, where he and his brother refurbished old housing in several depressed neighborhoods. Susan grew up in Reading, Penn., but she has traveled the world in her work with nonprofits. The couple moved to Louisville in 1995, after Susan got a job with the Presbyterian Church. The Portland buildings are the Rhemas’ sixth renovation project.

“Seven, 10 years ago, people were questioning us for wanting to live in Old Louisville,” Dan remembers. “West Louisville has the exact same stuff that Old Louisville has. The exact same type of buildings: gorgeous, Victorian-era homes. And the parks – I can see Shawnee Park from my roof. If you describe it that way, it’s no different than what we have in Old Louisville. It has its rough areas. We are gambling, but we believe this is going to pay off.”

After leading a tour of the U.S. Marine Hospital, entrepreneur Gill Holland, left, walks with a group outside the historic building, which is undergoing restoration. At right is Bill Wagner, executive director of Family Health Centers, headquartered on the same grounds as the hospital, at 2215 Portland Ave. (Photo: brianbohannon.com)The Rhemas are joining a stampede of public and private interest in West Louisville. Most of the investment is centered around, but not limited to, Portland. The Portland neighborhood generally falls between Interstate 264 (western boundary), Tenth Street (eastern boundary), the Ohio River (northern boundary), and Market Street (southern boundary). Married artists Aron Conaway and Hallie Jones have reopened the performance venue Nelligan Hall at 2010 Portland Ave., and they are also renting artist studios and storage space at the Mammoth near 13th and Broadway.

Green Building owner Gill Holland, who is given a lot of credit for the redevelopment of East Market Street into the area known as NuLu, has formed the Portland Investment Initiative to raise $25 million in investments for the area. Holland is focusing his efforts between 15th and 26th streets, from Market Street to Portland Avenue. The North Carolina native says he’s been intrigued by West Louisville’s potential since he first moved to the city eight years ago.

“Sometimes it takes someone from the outside to see potential, where others see historical failure or lack of momentum,” he explains. “I think it is the same with NuLu. If you walk up and down the street, I bet a solid 50 percent are not Louisville natives. It’s a good mix of long-term locals – people who stayed and preserved their buildings for decades – and then fresh new eyes with young blood and sweat equity if not real equity. I feel like, with a little bit of urban acupuncture in a couple of blocks, you could see a positive ripple effect.”

Habitat for Humanity has also moved its Louisville headquarters to the Portland neighborhood. In addition to its normal mission of building homes, Habitat is also working with the New Direction Housing Corporation to use federal grant money to help current homeowners renovate their properties. The program, called Portland Pride, is part of a three-year partnership between Louisville Metro Government and Portland Now, the area’s neighborhood association. Portland is the first Louisville neighborhood to receive a federal designation as a Neighborhood Revitalization Strategy Area (NRSA) from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department. It will be the first of many neighborhoods to try new approaches in revitalization.

The home of Donna and Bob Shepperson, 2741 W. Main St., is one of many Portland area residences receiving a face lift, thanks to Portland Pride, a $1.75 million home rehabilitation program. Changes are afoot in West Louisville neighborhoods, with private and commercial investment on the rise. (Photo: brianbohannon.com)

The city of Louisville is also purchasing a 30-acre former National Tobacco property at 30th and Muhammad Ali Boulevard for $1.2 million. The property will be used for economic development. Mayor Greg Fischer has said that one of the most important initiatives of his administration is to help revitalize Western Louisville and attract jobs, retail and new housing to Russell, California, Portland, Chickasaw and Shawnee. “When we began to talk to companies about investing in Western Louisville, we ran into the same obstacle time and again – there was no significant amount of land to build a plant, a factory or an office,” Fischer said in a press release announcing the purchase in January.

Holland says West Louisville has the ingredients for a successful redevelopment, but he feels that entrepreneurs are overlooking opportunities in the area because of its reputation for high crime, drugs and problems with vacant houses. One solution is to start a rebranding campaign to change perceptions. Holland has dubbed 15th Street the East Portland Warehouse District, and he hopes to turn Bank Street into an artists’ row with cheap studio space. He has spent a lot of time raising West Louisville’s web presence, and says two new web sites are on their way to completion.

“I’m putting up all the great photos of existing assets because I feel like for a long time the neighborhood has let the media run with negative stories as opposed to accentuating all the positive ones,” Holland says. “Part of it is just educating the people that don’t live west of Ninth about all the good things, and all the assets that are there, because I think a lot of people are kind of oblivious.”

Members of Portland Now meet monthly at Neighborhood House on North 25th Street to discuss development projects and other neighborhood issues. Made up of several groups, the organization is working to better coordinate improvement efforts in the Portland neighborhood. (Photo: brianbohannon.com)Portland was founded in 1811 by General William Lytle, who also founded Cincinnati, Ohio. Portland was a wealthy rival to Louisville because of its location downstream from the Falls of the Ohio. Steamboats had to unload their cargo in Louisville and take it by wagon to Portland. After the Louisville Canal was built in 1830, however, Portland began to decline.  

West Louisville was itself a desirable address before the 1937 flood and desegregation led to white flight. Many blue-collar white families that couldn’t move away ended up in Portland. The area is 72 percent Caucasian and 24 percent African American. For many years, Portland tried to distance itself from the predominantly African American neighborhoods farther west. But that is changing.

Portland Now President Danny McDole says his neighborhood must join forces with other West Louisville communities to battle mutual problems like crime, the abundance of liquor stores in the area and vacant homes. Portland Now would also like to see the K&I railroad bridge transformed into a pedestrian bridge similar to the Big 4, so West Louisville residents can walk across the river to New Albany. The project would need the votes of council members from other communities.

“Anyone who says Portland is not the West End is stupid,” McDole attests. “We can’t go it alone. There are projects that will benefit the whole area and we need to lobby for them as a group.”

Portland Now has joined a new umbrella organization called the West Louisville Dream Team to achieve mutual goals. McDole is excited about people like Holland and the Rhemas seeing the potential in West Louisville. “Portland has plenty of stock if we can get it away from the banks,” he says. “We need people. I don’t know how all of this interest in Portland got started, but I’m happy it is happening.”

The Rhemas are already talking to the city about purchasing five or six lots next to the current properties they own. If the gallery and trauma center are successful, they hope to build other businesses to serve their clients. But they might have some competition.

“Every day since I’ve been working there, I get someone knocking on the door, asking if they can buy the property,” Dan says. “Then others want to know when The HUB is going to open back up again. There is a lot of interest in buying in Portland right now. It’s an exciting place to be.” - See more at: http://www.thehighlanderonline.com/print-articles/features/661-heading-west?start=2#sthash.c0aRU79O.dpuf




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