In West Louisville, Kentucky, Investing in Equity and Inclusion


This post is part of a series on NLC’s Equitable Economic Development (EED) Fellowship.

Theresa Zawacki is the Senior Policy Advisor of Louisville Forward and member of the Equitable Economic Development (EED) Fellowship team. Louisville Forward is an integrated approach to economic and community development. The agency combines business attraction, expansion and retention activities and talent and workforce attraction, with all the city’s real estate development, regulatory agencies, land use and planning and design functions to present a unified solution for job growth and quality of place.

Recently, I talked to Theresa about how the city is building a culture of entrepreneurship in West Louisville neighborhoods and why equity is a priority for Mayor Fischer.

Carlos Delgado: Theresa, thank you for taking the time to share with us and our audience the great work you and the EED team of Louisville are doing advancing equity as the forefront of economic development. Not adding pressure, but you are the first interview of the 2017-2018 cohort. To get started, briefly, tell us about your personal and professional background. Are you a native Louisvillian? 

Theresa Zawacki: Thanks, Carlos, for the opportunity to share our work. I’m not a native. I was born in Detroit, but my family followed the auto industry to the Nashville area and then to Georgetown, Kentucky. I’m a graduate of Transylvania University and have my JD and Masters of Community Planning from the University of Cincinnati. I practiced land use and environmental law in the private and public sectors before joining Louisville Metro Government’s economic development team and then, when it was created in 2014, Louisville Forward as Senior Policy Advisor.

I work on a variety of cross-functional topics, including local food initiatives and food access, affordable housing, catalytic private-sector development projects and building equity and inclusiveness into our daily work. I also oversee our Office of Redevelopment Strategies, which is focused on targeted city-led investment in the Russell Neighborhood in west Louisville.

CD: Following on building an equitable and inclusive city, Mayor Fischer has made this a priority. Could you elaborate how the mayor is trying to accomplish this ambitious goal?

TZ: Mayor Fischer has pursued three big goals since he took office in 2011: making Louisville a city of lifelong learning, a much healthier city and an even more compassionate community. As the past chair of the U.S. Conference of Mayors Metro Economies Committee, which addresses economic problems facing the nation’s cities and their residents, Mayor Fischer has been part of a national dialogue about the importance of inclusiveness and equity in economic development as part of a competitiveness strategy and equally importantly, as the compassionate choice.

Louisville’s focus on compassion is something that resonates worldwide and is so relevant in today’s world. By building a culture of compassion, we know that each resident will have the ability to reach their full human potential, ultimately creating a city of opportunity for all.

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CD: During our engagement with the City, Mayor Fischer and the EED team decided to focus on creating a culture of entrepreneurship in two neighborhoods of West Louisville, Parkland and Russell. Why this neighborhood economic development approach and what challenges Parkland and Russell face?

TZ: As a background, Russell and Parkland are located within a set of nine neighborhoods collectively referred to as West Louisville. These two neighborhoods in particular were once centers of African-American business and homeownership, but are now some of the most distressed in the community as a result of structural and institutional racist polices that include the then-legal, discriminatory practice of redlining, which severely limited the availability of loans for residential and commercial purposes and the eventual demolition of “blighted” buildings in the name of urban renewal.

Now, residents experience substantially higher rates of chronic disease, lower life expectancy, higher rates of violence, higher poverty rates, lower educational attainment, higher unemployment rates and are likely to be cost burdened.

So what we have in Parkland and Russell is an unprecedented opportunity to implement intentional policies and practices that, if successful, can be replicated across west Louisville and similar areas of the community. We know that in order to promote equity and resilience in these neighborhoods, we have to focus not just on housing and community development, but on business and economic development.

Our main focus is on implementing a set of collective-impact-oriented strategies, including professional networking, better coordination among business service providers, financial incentives and a look inward at our own procurement practices to help rebuild a culture of entrepreneurship, not just in the retail and service sectors, but in professional services and technology, that can give individuals access to goods, services and high quality job opportunities that lead to economic stability and community vibrancy. We’re doing that in tandem with investments in the built environment including targeted site acquisition and disposition, creative place-making and pop-up retail activation.

CD: In October of last year, we conducted a technical assistance peer visit to Louisville were we brought outside experts and your peer fellows from other cities to give you recommendations on how to better accomplish the objectives for Parkland and Russell. How important has being to receive outsider feedback and what progress have you made since then?

TZ: One of the most valuable aspects of the fellowship is the opportunity to connect with an extremely talented, generous, creative and insightful group of experts and peers. It has been unbelievably helpful to have had a chance to work with our technical assistance team, especially our faculty advisor, Harold Pettigrew, who has been an amazing resource to us during the site visits and really whenever we’ve needed him.

The Fellowship provides cities with such a unique opportunity to have access to a faculty and peer advisory team that represents such a broad set of expertise from around the nation. Our team’s input and recommendations helped us refine our thinking about our participation in the Fellowship and open our minds to new ways to approach our work, and our outcomes will be better as a result.

Since our first technical assistance visit, we have mapped our small business resources and those of our small business resource providers to understand who benefits from the technical assistance and other supports available in the community. Thanks to that work, we know that through the work of 20 participating providers, we’ve touched 174 clients in west Louisville, of which 138 identify as minority women. We also know what stage of business each is in, and what needs they have.

We’ve also conducted two business roundtable events during which we learned that business owners in Parkland and Russell are overwhelmingly interested in being connected with mentors and in access to capital to help their business grow. We are well underway with strategies to redevelop vacant properties for small business in each of our two focus neighborhoods, and we’re retooling an existing small developers workshop series to be more inclusive of new and minority participants. Finally, we are exploring Louisville Metro Government’s procurement history as it relates to MBWEs, and working with an internal team that includes our Chief Equity Officer to identify west Louisville businesses that have the potential to be vendors to the city.

Fellowship participants and NLC experts attended a briefing at the NIA Center. (Carlos Delgado)

CD: You were part of the Technical Assistance Peer visit to Sacramento. Can you share how was that experience for you and what you learned from it?

TZ: The entire experience felt a little like riding a big wave coming in to shore: a little chaotic and overwhelming at first, but ultimately ordered and undeniably rewarding. The Sacramento EED Fellows gave us an unbelievable amount of information about the city and the Del Paso Heights and Stockton Corridor neighborhoods in which we were working, including a whirlwind tour that took us from the north all the way to the south of the city. There were definitely moments when I wondered how we would integrate all that information into something that would be useful to the Fellows when we left, and the days went by fast.

But when the visiting team sat down to start working on our presentation, it all came together neatly with each member of the team contributing his or her perspective and experience. It was an honor to have been part of a process that will guide the City of Sacramento’s efforts to promote equity in its economic development work and, ultimately, how it positions itself as a leader in the local conversation about equity and inclusion.

CD: Theresa, thank you so much for sharing your experience so far in the EED Fellowship. I am sure your comments will resonate with many NLC members. To conclude any final comments about the role the EEF Fellowship has played in your professional/leadership development?

TZ: Thanks to you Carlos and the entire EED team for making this program happen.The Fellowship has given me a chance to connect with a truly remarkable group of people: peer Fellows from participating in this year’s cohort, experts from around the country  and of course the talented and wonderful staff members from NLC, ULI and PolicyLink. Building these new relationships and having a chance to learn from my colleagues from around the country has been one of the most special aspects of the Fellowship and one that I’ll continue to draw from even after the Fellowship ends.

carlos_delgado_125x150About the author: Carlos Delgado is the Senior Associate for the Rose Center for Public Leadership in Land Use at the National League of Cities.