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'Negotiations just fell apart': Plans stall for new community grocery store in Louisville

It comes three months after the Smoketown neighborhood was named as the likely spot for a new full-service grocery. Now, the developer and timeline is unclear.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — It's back to the drawing board for Metro leaders in their plans to build a new community grocery store in Louisville.

In November, WHAS11 reported Smoketown was the likely neighborhood picked for the new building and that developers were already chosen by the Mayor's Office. 

The $3.5 million-dollar project was fully funded and approved by Metro Council in 2020 in an attempt to bring more food options to residents who have none by Aug. 2023 at the latest.

But recently progress has stalled, leaving some in the community questioning whether the store will ever come to fruition.

"Negotiations just fell apart," said Nathan Hernandez, representing the Louisville Association for Community Economics (LACE) -- one of two non-profit organizations who originally won the bid to develop the project.

On Jan. 10, the Jefferson County Attorney's Office -- speaking for Metro Government -- told both LACE and the Louisville Community Grocery (LCG) that the Metro was ending negotiations.

The letter reads as follows:

"We are writing to advise you that Louisville/Jefferson County Metro Government (“Metro”) is terminating negotiations with LACE for the Community Grocery Capital Project, effective immediately.

The Letter of Intent between Metro and LACE dated August 4, 2021 established a deadline of July 31, 2021 for site selection, which Metro extended to October 22, 2021. Although a site has now been identified, the Letter of Intent also required site control by December 31, 2021. It is our understanding that site control cannot be granted until March 2022 at the earliest.

The Request for Proposals for the Community Grocery Capital Project was issued in November 2020 with a grand opening of the grocery no later than August 31, 2023. Unfortunately, LACE’s failure to meet key deadlines contained the Letter of Intent is not compatible with Metro’s goals for the expeditious completion of this project.

Please contact the undersigned if you have any questions or concerns.

On Monday, LACE gave its side.

"We never felt like we were being heard, and the support we needed to be successful was just not there," said Hernandez, who said the relationship became more transactional than a partnership.

In the letter, the Jefferson County Attorney's Office writes LACE failed to meet "key deadlines."

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"We had asked for a written commitment that we could show other funders, and they'd agree to give us that but only if we'd agree to certain deadlines which were problematic from the beginning," Hernandez said. "There are good people in Louisville Metro Government, and we wanted to work with them, and there was always this barrier from our side. We couldn't tell what that barrier was. It was supposed to be a non-binding timeline."

Meanwhile co-owner and operator at Black Market KY, Jasmine Harris, says the last thing we need is more obstacles to curing food insecurity.

"Going to Kroger's -- the fruits and vegetables were always scarce or not the best, and I'm just like, 'We deserve fresh foods. Why can't we get that?'" said Harris, who's led the store for more than three months. It had its grand opening back in January of 2021.

The Black Market has quickly become a staple in the Russell Neighborhood, a close-by spot for families to get fresh produce and healthy foods. But ownership says the city can't stop there.

"I would like to see more Black markets and grocery stores in food apartheid areas," Harris said. "I really think we deserve it, all of us do."

On Monday, Metro Councilmembers made it clear the funding is already allocated, and won't be rescinded or reallocated. They say the application will restart for new bidders, but the exact timeline is uncertain.

The Jefferson County Attorney's Office gave WHAS11 this statement on Monday: “The Jefferson County Attorney’s Office serves as the legal representative for Louisville Metro Government. The January 10 letter clearly states the supporting reasons that our client, Louisville Metro Government, considered when it chose to end negotiations with LACE.”

The Mayor's Office released this statement about the store:

“At this time, we are no longer in negotiations with any party. We are reviewing the language in the RFP to make sure the requirements are explained clearly and explicitly and will be re-releasing it in the coming weeks. Our Center for Health Equity continues highlighting inequities in our food system and advocating for solutions to address this issue. A community grocery is one solution, but it’s certainly not the only way. We need many kinds of supports for the food system to provide healthy and quality access to heathy foods for our residents.”

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