May 5, 2010

Jerry's kids

Facts, rumors and political innuendo

Given May is National Preservation Month, developer Todd Blue picked a bad time to ask Metro government for permission to destroy the Iron Quarter, a cluster of historic cast-iron buildings along Main Street. The request has ignited one of the fieriest preservation battles in recent memory, with those wishing to protect the 19th-century structures from demolition planning to turn up the heat in the coming weeks.

Earlier this year, Mayor Jerry Abramson, who opposes razing the buildings, met with Blue and on several occasions offered the Louisville businessman a chance to relinquish the string of old whiskey warehouses.

“We had found some buyers to take some of the properties off Mr. Blue’s hands, and we’ve done everything to try and show him other avenues,” says Chris Poynter, a mayoral spokesman. “The mayor hopes to meet with Mr. Blue again to understand where he’s coming from. Given its history on Main Street, it would simply be a travesty, and a tragedy and a loss of Louisville’s history if Mr. Blue is allowed to tear these buildings down.”

The city has a vested interest in the undeveloped properties located less than a block from the newly dubbed KFC Yum! Center, which is scheduled to open later this year. And in a report funded by the Downtown Development Corp. last year, it had been suggested that the buildings are salvageable if put in the right hands.

Despite that report and pressure from the Mayor’s Office, it appears Blue is unwilling to budge.

Upon contacting Blue, LEO Weekly was referred to his attorney, Glenn Cohen, who did not return a call seeking comment.

After hiring a structural engineer, Blue’s company, Cobalt Ventures, issued a statement saying the demolition request is an “emergency,” and that the “buildings are a threat to the life, health and safety of pedestrians, workers and passers-by.”

The alarm comes three years after Blue purchased the buildings for $4.3 million. At the time, he outlined an ambitious and multifaceted $50 million renovation project. The recession, however, pick-pocketed potential tenants and the dilapidated buildings have remained an idle eyesore ever since.

Concerned about the likelihood of demolition, preservationists believe both the city and Blue (who owns numerous commercial properties, including the East Main Street building in which LEO resides) are equally responsible for the block’s present condition. They point out that the Abramson administration hasn’t aggressively gone after wealthy developers who ignored city regulations and destroyed other historic properties before.

In 2008, for instance, businessman Michael Gordon gutted the Peter Funk House — a 213-year-old structure in the East End and one of the oldest homes in Louisville Metro — despite several warnings and hefty citations from the planning commission.

That situation demonstrated Metro government isn’t serious about protecting the city’s old-style buildings, says Marianne P. Zickuhr, executive director of Preservation Louisville, a nonprofit dedicated to historic preservation.

The group plans to kick off a grassroots effort beginning with a petition seeking to classify the downtown buildings as historic landmarks. It’s an effort that has already gained the support of small-business owners along the block, says Zickuhr.

Just one day after Blue sought the demolition application on April 27, concerned citizens started a Facebook group called “Save the Iron Quarter,” dedicated to salvaging the string of buildings.

“I believe that Mr. Blue thinks he’s above the law. And we’ve known as a preservation community that this was going to be a big fight. Mr. Blue has laid down the gauntlet,” says Zickuhr. “So it’s time to go, it’s time to get on board, it’s time to sign these petitions, and it’s time to support our history.”

•••

The latest advertisement from Democratic mayoral candidate and Metro Councilman Jim King, D-10, launches the first televised attack ad of the race and it is aimed at businessman Greg Fischer.

The 30-second commercial calls out the Democratic front-runner for having backed Republican candidates, misleading the public about a business award, and making deals that didn’t put Louisville job creation first.

It begins by mentioning Fischer has contributed heavily to Republican candidates, including former U.S. Rep. Anne Northup, who served Louisville’s congressional district for a decade before losing to U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth in 2006.

The advertisement also accuses Fischer of falsely insinuating he won Inc. Magazine’s 1990 Entrepreneur of the Year award, which is not the case. In fact, Fischer, along with his father and brother, won a less prestigious version affiliated with the magazine, which a campaign spokesman claims is in line with Fischer’s previous public statements.

Then the commercial slams Fischer for moving jobs to Indiana, which he said was the “easier” option when confronted with the question by Councilman David Tandy, D-4, during a recent mayoral forum.

Other campaigns have supposedly produced similar commercials that hit Fischer with probing questions about his record with labor unions and basic knowledge of Metro government finances, but it appears he won’t return fire — at least not yet.

“Jim King is a desperate politician who will do or say anything to be mayor. This is just the type (of) ad I expected of him,” Fischer said in a statement. “I will not stoop to Jim King’s level and will continue to run a positive, issues-based campaign because that is what the people of Louisville deserve.”

A few years ago, however, mudslinging was a favorite tactic that Fischer used repeatedly when he made an unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate in the Democratic primary battle against businessman Bruce Lunsford. By crying foul in the mayor’s race, Fischer’s opponents say he has a double standard.

“Back in 2008, Greg Fischer ran one of the most negative campaigns against a Democrat I had ever seen,” says Jonathan Hurst, King’s campaign manager. “You know with Greg, it’s always about focusing on everyone else, but now news outlets are focusing on him, and voters are starting to wake up, pay attention and ask questions.”