Part 2: Lord, We’re Getting Them Big City Ways: Power, Development and Democracy in Kentucky
Updated: 3 days ago
Part 2 of a TIF Op-Ed Series
“They thought we’d just tuck our tails and go away. They got fooled.”
- Penny Myers, former North Fork trailer park resident
In March 2021, a state-level resolution, House Bill 321, was announced to make the entire West End of Louisville a TIF (Tax Increment Financing) district.
There are two things you need to know about the West Louisville TIF: 1) The West End of Louisville is a massive area that includes 9 neighborhoods and over 60,000 people. By itself, there are more people in the West End of Louisville than in every city in KY outside of Louisville, Lexington, and Bowling Green. 2) TIFs sound complicated, but they’re really not. All TIFs do is take ALL the future tax revenue in an area and give it to developers as a subsidy. What that means is that developers get a continuous stream of revenue for decades that is paid for by your tax dollars. TIFs are basically a defunding campaign. They take tax dollars that normally go to things like schools, social services and public infrastructure and hand it over to developers to do whatever the fuck they want with it.
And it's that simple. The state of Kentucky created a governing structure to oversee the TIF called the West End Opportunity Partnership (WEOP). The WEOP board will now oversee this money and serve as a pass-through to developers. So, whatever flaws exist in our democracy, and there are many, it beats having our tax dollars being doled out to developers in private, closed door meetings by a board that nobody elected. The membership structure for WEOP’s board is as follows:
One (1) member appointed by the Governor for a term of two (2) years;
One (1) member appointed by the mayor of a consolidated local government for a term of two (2) years;
One (1) member of the legislative council of the consolidated local government appointed by its members for a term of three (3) years;
A representative of the University of Louisville appointed by its board of trustees for a term of three (3) years;
A representative of Simmons College of Kentucky appointed by its board of trustees for a term of three (3) years; and
One (1) member from the NAACP of Louisville;
One (1) member from OneWest in Louisville;
One (1) member from Louisville Urban League;
One (1) member from the Federal Reserve Bank in Louisville;
One (1) member from the Volunteers of America Mid States in Louisville;
One (1) member from a locally based foundation with assets over one hundred million dollars ($100,000,000); and
One (1) member from a bank with local assets greater than one billion dollars ($1,000,000,000).
The board shall include in its bylaws a process for appointing one (1) member from each of the nine (9) neighborhoods in the development area as additional members.
Nearly every organization on the 21 member board has one thing in common and that’s an interest and investment in real estate capital. The WEOP board will decide how all the tax revenue coming out of the West End will be spent from now on, with no public accountability or oversight built into the process.
The Lincoln Institute on Land Policy reviewed TIF policies in Chicago like what Louisville passed and found that TIFs "benefit neighborhoods that were already gentrifying and siphoned off funds that should have gone to public schools." By diverting public tax dollars to private hands, TIFs “effectively shield the money from standard oversight by elected officials.” “Local journalists [in Chicago] showed how the mechanism effectively became a kind of slush fund for favored projects.”
The idea of making the West End a TIF district has been kicked around by Louisville developers for years. Back in 2015, during a forum about West End development with mega-developers Steve Poe and Gill Holland, Poe said that he was pushing for the establishment of a TIF and it “should probably be pursued for overall West Louisville infrastructure improvements.”
Steve Poe is a former business partner of Louisville Mayoral candidate Craig Greenberg. He’s also the developer who helped found the nonprofit development corporation OneWest. According to their website, “OneWest was formed in 2014 by a diverse group of professionals in Leadership Louisville’s Bingham Fellows program. They believed that the clearest path to economic renaissance in west Louisville is an influx of private, philanthropic, and public capital.” Steve Poe was one of these 2014 Bingham Fellows. Their 2014 topic was “Investing in West Louisville’s Path to Prosperity.” During this fellowship, Steve got introduced to the Over the Rhine neighborhood in Cincinnati. Over the Rhine went through rapid gentrification in the late 1990s. The people in Over the Rhine were also terrorized by the Cincinnati police force during this time, that culminated in the police murder of Timothy Thomas and the Cincinnati uprising in 2003. Steve was super interested in how the corporate real estate conglomerate Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC) took over the Over the Rhine neighborhood and pocketed millions in the process. Steve modeled OneWest after 3CDC and then spent the last five years planning, lobbying, buying, and leveraging behind the scenes to create this new giant nonprofit development corporation: the WEOP, established via the TIF ordinance. The WEOP holds unprecedented power. Not only does the organization leverage all the new tax revenue created in the West End, it can also receive public and private investments. The WEOP is poised to amass huge amounts of “private, philanthropic, and public capital” to fulfill Steve Poe’s vision of private real estate control of the gentrification of the West End. As we’ve come to expect from economic development legislation in KY, the bill does not address any conflict of interests by allowing private donations in a public process. According to the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission, Steve Poe’s private LLC, Poe Companies, spent the first part of 2021 lobbying for the TIF in Frankfort. No one lobbied harder for the TIF than Steve Poe and OneWest, and no one stands to benefit more.
The TIF announcement created a lot of confusion in Louisville. Particularly for West End residents, because the opportunity for public discussion to provide feedback did not exist. What little opportunity existed for public information was facilitated by OneWest and their associates on Facebook Live. This confusion led the Coalition of West Louisville Neighborhood Associations to write in an April op-ed saying that “This information, along with the knowledge that gentrification was also coming into the area, only helped to create a confused and enraged community now left with the feeling that it’s being used under the auspices of racial equity!”
When Black Lives Matter Louisville hosted a Facebook forum in March, “WTF is a TIF?,” KY Senators Gerald Neal and Morgan McGarvey, and Craig Greenberg joined the panel. Greenberg introduced himself by saying, “Hello, my name is Craig Greenberg. I’ve been involved in the community with various tax programs, such as the New Market Tax Credit as well as other Tax Increment Financing programs, and I’ve been involved with the group that drafted this legislation we’re talking about this evening.” Greenberg wasn't lying about his role in Kentucky real estate development projects. As a lawyer with Frost Brown Todd, Kentucky’s largest law firm, he helped clients raise and invest over $300 million in low-income communities across the country.
No one bothered to ask Greenberg or Senator Neal why someone from the private sector was drafting state level legislation. But Senator Neal clarified Greenberg’s involvement by saying, “A TIF is a mechanism for funding initiatives that the community determines valuable. Folks like Craig Greenberg, Nikki Lanier, and Evon Smith were certainly very key in this piece.” “Very key” means they drafted the legislation, lobbied for it, and even had to join the panel because our elected officials couldn’t explain what in the hell a TIF was or how it worked. By the way, Nikki Lanier is the board chair of OneWest and Evon Smith is OneWest’s Executive Director.
During the panel, Greenberg wouldn't admit that the TIF would benefit developers, “I fundamentally disagree with [the] characterization that this TIF is to benefit developers, because the group that controls how this money is reinvested does not have developers on it. The board is a public umbrella organization.”
What? Craig Greenberg's commitment to helping the rich get richer off the backs of poor and working class people is deplorable. Moreover, the function of his work and actions pushes families in low-income neighborhoods out of their homes and into deeper pits of generational poverty and desperation. Second, like so many other ruling class liberals, Craig Greenberg has and will continue to lie to the public to cover up the loopholes they are exploiting and to hide their growing number of violations against procedural due process and community consent—which the residents of the West End were and remain entitled to. There are, in fact, developers on the WEOP board, including OneWest. Only the ruling class in Louisville would be cynical enough to think that anyone would believe otherwise. According to Greenberg, the WEOP is only a “public umbrella organization” by way of appointments from the Governor and Mayor. Nevermind the fact that there is no public process built into the legislation. Unless the WEOP board decides to drop that tax revenue money out of a helicopter over West Louisville, the money will go to private developers for real estate projects. And the legislation allows those decisions to be made in closed meetings. The public will not know or have any input about any of it until after the decisions are made—when it's too late. Third, in that quote, Greenberg is straight up lying about what a TIF is and what it does. In even the most basic (or even conservative) definitions, a TIF is defined as a subsidy for developers. Why? Because that is what they are in every iteration.
Greenberg went on to say that the Louisville TIF will take “80% of all new taxes that are generated in West Louisville and, by law, requires those funds to be invested in West Louisville. Not in control of the city or state government. But the headline is 80 cents of every new tax dollar generated in West Louisville will be reinvested in West Louisville.”
Greenberg is trying to shift the focus here because the headline can't be that a private developer is shitting on democracy and celebrating a slush fund for the removal of tax dollars from democratic control of citizens and elected officials to be placed under a private authority. Liberal politicians want us to believe that because money is invested in a geographic area, it somehow benefits the people in that area, instead of it being a way to separate the land from the people who live on it to maximize its value. Like a community is just a place and not the people in it.
Investment is not a tide that lifts all ships. In fact, investment returns on residential development are often made by getting rid of the people who live there. If poor people even try to hang on after increasing the rent, you can always send in the police to terrorize them. And if you make things hard enough on the poor, terrorize and murder them enough, they’ll eventually leave. Market rate investments increase rent, and there is no place for people in Louisville to go when West End rents increase. The TIF will make all of this worse.
“Gentrification is the displacement and replacement of poor and working-class residents in an area for profit. This process is the result of housing market speculation—spurred by investment in market-rate development—which inflates costs of living in an area beyond the affordability of current residents, inevitably forcing them to leave.”
—HBN Assembly: A Louisville-based Black Tenants’ Movement,
Historically Black Neighborhood Community Land Trust Proposal
There are more Black households in Louisville making under $35,000 than making over $50,000. But poor and working class Black families are erased in this “lift all ships” myth of investment. In the last few years, as concerns about gentrification and displacement rose in Louisville, liberal politicians quickly adapted. They began using words like “anti-gentrification” or “anti-displacement” in their gentrification projects as a means of quelling public dissent. Simultaneously, this gave their media partners an excuse to publicly shout the project’s praises for being equitable or progressive.
Less than a month after the TIF legislation passed, Craig Greenberg announced that he was running for mayor of Louisville. The announcement closed an eventful four month stretch of public performances to kick off 2021:
January: Greenberg buys Ohio Valley Wrestling with Matt Jones.
February: Greenberg launches urban revitalization firm focused on West End development; public announcement and introduction of the legislation to establish a West End TIF district
March: West End TIF district is approved at the state level
April: Greenberg announces run for mayor; West End TIF district legislation is signed into law by Governor Andy Beshear
Almost like it was all planned. Except it gets weirder and worse. In one weekend in June, mayoral candidate David James dropped out of the race due to health concerns (he has since endorsed Greenberg), and a day later sure-to-be-running-for-mayor-hopeful Barbara Sexton Smith announced that she is not running after all and is instead supporting Greenberg. David James already had most of the union endorsements in the city, but let's be real, this race was Barbara’s to win. She left her council seat last year to run. Everyone knew she was going to run. People really like Barbara, and she is a good politician, meaning she’s entertaining, takes a lot of selfies with poor and working class constituents, makes people feel important, and tells lies very well. But that's how it goes. The ruling class sat Barbara down and explained that she wasn’t their pick and Greenberg is, just like Greg Fischer was 10 years ago. Except, unlike Fischer, Greenberg is from the Brown family’s inner circle. The Brown family has already contributed heavily to his campaign, which has raised over $400,000 to date.
This is what happens when we protest: The ruling class clamps down hard. But making the entire West End a TIF district while installing a luxury hotel developer as mayor—in what can be considered (in terms of campaign spending power) a virtually uncontested mayoral race—still seems like a hyperbolic joke from 2018, even in Louisville. It’s going to be hard to beat Greenberg now, especially if the Brown family buys off any candidate who is remotely a threat and doles out funding and high level city positions to key progressives in return for signaling endorsement and support. By the way, this is also how politically ambitious progressives get their projects funded.
The ruling class in Louisville gets away with whatever they want, and it just gets more surreal & cynical everyday. Why even go through the motions of democracy at all when you can install the developer and landlord as mayor and bypass the crony careerism that slows down the sacred flow of capital investment?
Back at the Morehead City Council meeting on May 10th, State Representative Attica Scott talked about how the Louisville TIF situation was similar to Morehead. “Frankfort just passed a TIF for West Louisville without input from West Louisville residents, so we are watching closely what's happening to our siblings [here] in North Fork.” In her address, State Representative Scott encouraged the North Fork residents to not be discouraged and keep fighting, “I know what it feels like to think you are powerless and voiceless. The reality is, that you have shown through your collective effort, that you have community power and that your voices will be heard. All of Kentucky has heard you!” But none of what the State Representative said mattered to Morehead Mayor Laura White-Brown. She ended public comments after State Representative Scott spoke and called for three units of police backup to silence us when we objected.
And here is the problem in KY: electing liberals ain’t working. Liberals work in collusion with the right against poor and working class people. Having a liberal mayor in Louisville didn’t work for Breonna Taylor. It didn’t work for David McAtee, who was murdered by the KY National Guard on the orders of Democrat Governor Andy Beshear. It didn't work for the North Fork residents. And it hasn’t worked for the countless numbers of Black people murdered by police in cities with liberal administrations across the country. Why? Because class interests and racial capitalism dictate the nature of property development and state violence more than political ideology.
But we do not have to take that lying down. Let's fight back in the class struggle and to control our land and our housing in KY. Do you think tenants need more power? Do you want to learn to organize with your neighbors to improve your living conditions? Want to be part of the tenant movement? In collaboration with tenant-led organizations across the state, KY Tenants has launched a Fall/Winter 2021 Tenants Organizing Training Series. Follow us here and sign up for more information. @KyTenants #KyTenants https://www.rootcauseresearch.org/tenanttraining
HB 321 https://apps.legislature.ky.gov/record/21rs/hb321.html
HB 321 Chapter 23 https://apps.legislature.ky.gov/law/acts/21RS/documents/0203.pdf
The Hidden Costs of TIF: Reconsidering a Vaunted Economic Development Tool
Could a soccer stadium or U of L campus jump start West Louisville? Louisville Business First June 2015
For a concise history about the gentrification of Over the Rhine and the connection to police violence, please visit https://jackdelisiohist415.wordpress.com/over-the-rhine-gentrification/
OneWest announces Board of Directors https://onewest.org/onewest-announces-board-directors-2015/
Steve Poe started as the interim president for OneWest, then transitioned to board chair for their first few years. He recently stepped down as chair (he’s still on the board) after they bought some key commercial properties along 18th Street and Broadway in West Louisville. OneWest’s private company, OW Broadway Holdings LLC, now owns these properties. The nonprofit still functions as a charitable, tax-exempt organization, but the same board controls sits over both entities. Source: Jefferson County PVA
How Kentucky lawmakers disregarded west Louisville residents' concerns in approving TIF by the Coalition of West Louisville Neighborhood Associations, Louisville Courier Journal April 23, 2021
What the F is a TIF? FB Live panel from Black Lives Matter Louisville w/ Craig Greenberg and KY Senator Gerald Neal
MoxieTalk with Kirt Jacobs Episode 11. Craig Greenberg – Former Attorney, Frost Brown Todd (1998-2010) Interviewed 03-30-2006
There are more Black households in Louisville making under $35,000 than making over $50,000. From the American Community Survey 2019 5-year estimates
Louisville mayor race: You may recognize some of the names on Craig Greenberg's donor list Louisville Courier Journal July 22,2021