By Jim Hopkins
For the past two years, developers of the West Louisville FoodPort worked mightily to bring urban farming and as many as 250 good jobs to the heart of a neighborhood yearning for a better future. Mayor Greg Fischer said the project would “change the look and feel of Russell forever.” Their ambitious, $35 million plan was going so well, one of the world’s foremost advocates of organic food paid a headline-grabbing visit last year: Prince Charles, heir to the British throne.
But yesterday, the entire enterprise collapsed when the non-profit developers, Seed Capital Kentucky, abruptly announced they’d lost a linchpin partner, and without enough time to find a replacement. “We don’t have a way to put it together,” Seed Capital co-founder Stephen Reily said. “We are deeply disappointed.”
Many, many other people were disappointed as well: the mayor, who’d pushed the project as a centerpiece for revitalizing the Russell neighborhood, only to see it steadily scaled back amid community infighting; some 150 residents who helped shepherd the project past months of political hurdles, and the Russell councilwoman, Cheri Bryant Hamilton, “heartbroken” last night over its failure, The Courier-Journal said.
But less publicized was the distress almost certainly felt by a high-profile Louisville family who had invested heavily in its development: the Browns, founders of the spirits giant Brown-Forman. It was an unusual defeat for a family that’s often in the vanguard of high-profile causes ending in resounding success.
The Browns were there at critical junctures for the FoodPort, including last year’s goodwill tour by Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall. In a speech at the Cathedral of the Assumption on that overcast Friday in March, the CJ reported at the time, “the prince credited his visit to the persuasive powers of Louisville philanthropist Christina Lee Brown, matriarch of the family that controls Brown-Forman.”
Indeed, in 0ne photo with the newspaper’s online story, the unidentified woman in an orange coat and strands of pearls, beaming in the royal couple’s wake during one of their walkabouts, is Christina, known to many in Louisville as Christy.
As one of the city’s best-known philanthropists, she and her immediate family have formed the core of the extended Brown family’s support of Seed Capital. Her daughter, Augusta Brown Holland, an urban planner and investor, is one of the non-profit’s six board members. Another daughter, Brooke Brown Barzun, has a more direct line to Buckingham Palace: Her husband, Matthew Barzun, is U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom.
A tale of IRS tax returns
The Browns donate multimillions of dollars annually to charities from coast to coast, although especially in Louisville. But they don’t often seek attention for their contributions.
In fact, Seed Capital only hints at the family’s hefty financial support,
on a difficult-to-find page of its website with a barebones alphabetical roster of “funders.” Of the 16 names listed, six are Brown family members or their personal charitable foundations. A seventh is the source of their $6 billion fortune: Brown-Forman, the nearly 150-year-old producer of Jack Daniel’s and other well-known brands. And an eighth, the Community Foundation of Louisville, is home to at least 10 individual Brown donor-advised funds.
Brown family foundation public IRS tax returns fill in details. In 2012-2015, six of the foundations donated a combined $382,000 to Seed Capital, an amount equal to nearly 10% of the $4 million in charitable donations raised by that point.
Two of the foundations gave $100,000 a piece, the returns show. They are the Owsley Brown II Cockayne Fund; it’s named for Christy’s late husband, the Brown-Forman CEO Owsley Brown II. And the W.L. Lyons Brown Foundation, led by Owsley Brown’s sister, Ina Brown Bond.
Holland’s foundation gave $66,000. And her sister Brooke’s donated $33,000, according to the IRS documents. The rest came from the remaining two foundations.
Large though it is, the $382,000 is dwarfed by other Brown family gifts, including especially to the Speed Art Museum, which last spring re-opened after a $50 million renovation, much of which the family donated and helped raise.
It’s unclear what happens next with Seed Capital. The non-profit makes technical assistance grants to small farmers, and researches the food economy. But the FoodPort was its marquee project.
Reily, the Seed Capital co-founder, said yesterday the board was forced to shutter the FoodPort when a major financial anchor, Chicago-based FarmedHere, said three weeks ago it wouldn’t be able build a promised $23 million indoor vertical farm there because of what the CJ said were “internal financial issues.”
FarmedHere had pledged to start construction next summer on a 60,000-square-foot operation cultivating basil, micro greens and other crops for wholesale, the newspaper said. Reily says Seed Capital is prepared to return the 24-acre site back to the city for $1, the amount it originally paid.
A ‘vision’ for some, but others…
Mayor Fischer gave Reily a lot of credit, according to the CJ story. “There’s nobody like Stephen Reily who has tried to take on a project of this magnitude,” he said last night.
But the mayor sounded very frustrated. “There were certain parts of the community that could see the vision,” he told the newspaper, “and there were other people who disagreed or couldn’t believe there was such a thing as a nonprofit developer trying to do a really good thing for the city.
“This was a transformational project,” he said. “We really tried to involve the community. I hope we can explore other uses for the property.”
In that, the Brown family may well lend a hand.