Museum Plaza hopes HUD is answer to construction


by Joe Arnold

Posted on June 25, 2010 at 6:48 PM

Updated Monday, Oct 21 at 10:35 AM

Armed with some creative financing and impatient for construction to begin, the developers of the stalled Museum Plaza project hope to resume construction on the 703 feet skyscraper by this fall.

"Now is the time to build Museum Plaza," said developer Steve Wilson, "We never gave up hope, working quietly every single day to get this important project financed and under construction."

The breakthrough could come in the form of a federal loan, backed by surrounding counties and the personal guarantee of developers.

"The Kentucky Department of Local Government is applying for a $100 million federal loan from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to be used by the developers to help build this project," explained Gov. Steve Beshear (D-KY).  "It is an innovative financing program that the Commonwealth has never before applied for."

The project was announced in February 2006, with a groundbreaking in October, 2007.  Some progress has been made since then with the demolition of a ten story LG&E substation and the removal of underground cable.  But, construction was halted in 2008 after neighbors complained about vibrations from the drilling for huge concrete pillars.  The coinciding collapse of financial markets has frozen credit and the project.

As months and years passed, the future of the avant garde 62-story, skyline altering skyscraper has been up in the air. 
The footprint of the three legged structure vacant on the waterfront.

"For the last two years, we've been wondering if this project was ever going to come about," admitted Joe Wise, business manager of the Greater Louisville Construction and Trades Council.

With private financing of a $465 million project unlikely, if not impossible under current conditions, Museum Plaza developers convinced the state to apply for a loan from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Museum Plaza is not eligible to apply for a HUD loan, but the state is.

Under the scheme, HUD would loan $100 million in federal funds to Kentucky.  The collateral for that loan comes not from Jefferson County, but surrounding counties' Community Block Development Grants.

The Kentucky Department of Local Government would be a "pass through agent" for the money to go to Museum Plaza, whose developers, particularly Laura Lee Brown's personal fortune, are guaranteeing the $100 million loan.

"Laura Lee and I have provided significant safeguards to the state in connection with this loan," Wilson said, "without which the project would remain delayed."

Beshear said he has "personally reviewed the finances of all the individual developers and I can assure you with 150% certainty that we have more than sufficient collatoral to make sure that this is a risk free transaction for the state."

The HUD loan would be in the name of the governments of surrounding counties that want to participate, possibly Oldham, Shelby, Spencer, Hardin and Bullitt Counties.  The fiscal courts of each participating county would have to approve the deal.

It's estimated that Museum Plaza will create 4,500 construction jobs. 

More than 2300 people are expected to work there once the building is complete.  As part of the HUD requirement, a majority of those permanent jobs must be made available both to low and moderate income workers, and to residents of surrounding counties.

The proposal will get a public hearing at the Department of Local Government on Wednesday, July 7.  Developers say Louisville's congressional delegation is on board, but it is HUD's decision to make.

"We have had many conversations with folks from HUD here in the Louisville office as well as in Washington," explained developer Craig Greenberg, "and we are very excited about the prospects of this loan and confident in it success."

Who knows how many construction projects across the country have been stalled by the national credit crunch? 
 The Museum Plaza site has been growing weeds for two years.  But there is a difference between most projects and this one, the wealth and community interest of the Brown family of Louisville -- Brown as in distillery giant Brown-Forman -- and its wealthy heirs.

"And because they have been willing to step up, this is a risk free transaction for the Commonwealth of Kentucky," said Beshear.

The Brown family's influence has shaped Louisville for generations, and Laura Lee Brown's husband made clear that her commitment is substantial.

"Working quietly and at all hours of the day and night," Wilson said, "She has taken great personal risk for our community."

"It's going to be a testament and a legacy that you have made happen," said Kentucky Senate President David Williams (R-Burkesville), "and our state will be eternally grateful to you for allowing this to happen."