New YMCA in Kentucky’s west Louisville neighborhood reimagines public health through an equity lens October 8, 2019

There is a west Louisville resident who says the same thing whenever she crosses paths with Steve Tarver, President/CEO of the YMCA of Greater Louisville: “I can’t wait until my Y opens.”

Her description of the Y’s newest greater Louisville branch, the Republic Bank Foundation YMCA — a 77,000-square-foot facility that IFF helped finance — as hers is the best form of praise Tarver can imagine. “It brings me to tears every time I think about it,” he admits.

The woman’s excitement and sense of ownership are matched by other residents who have taken community tours to get a sneak peek of the $33.5 million project, which brings together six additional partner organizations to provide a healthcare center, bank, and wide array of other social services and programming under the Y’s roof. Scheduled to open in late 2019, the facility is already receiving high praise from west Louisvillians as “a grand slam,” a place for “real public health,” and even “the end of health disparities in our community.”

Those are bold statements. Decades of racist redlining and appraisal-based lending, the demolition of Black businesses and cultural institutions at “Old Walnut Street” in the 1960s, and the departure of major employers have erected steep barriers to long-term health in the west end of Louisville. (See sidebar for some of the highs and lows in Louisville’s complex history.)

But where some see only problems, the Y sees potential. After spending four hours every week helping young swimmers at Central High School’s pool in west Louisville over the summer, Tarver experienced the community’s enthusiasm and commitment first-hand. “Many of these children have not had the opportunity to swim, but they soak it up — pardon the pun — when it’s there,” he says. “I’d walk in and they’d say, ‘Mr. Steve, Mr. Steve, can you teach me to swim?’”

The new Y’s sparkling indoor pool will be a significant upgrade. It also represents just a sliver of what the facility will offer. The Y’s innovative vision for the project, which has been 10 years in the making, is to “create community-integrated health through the lens of health equity.”

Economic stability is a key social determinant of health.

That means west Louisville residents can expect a remarkable range of resources and amenities designed to help address the social factors affecting their health. “I’ve had people say things like, ‘You said this was going to be a community health facility, so what’s up with the bank?” Tarver notes. “And I say, ‘Economic stability is a key social determinant of health.’”

Facility highlights include:

  • A Norton Healthcare center providing pediatric and adult medical services, even a small food pantry
  • Child abuse prevention, behavioral and mental health counseling through Family & Children’s Place
  • Physical therapy through ProRehab
  • Multiple services for families impacted by cancer from Gilda’s Club Kentuckiana
  • Branch banking, depository and loan services, financial literacy workshops, and possibly even a free $10 starter savings accounts for kids through Republic Bank, which, in addition to leasing space, helped finance the facility
  • A Best Buy Teen Tech Center providing the tools and mentorship it takes to prepare kids for jobs that require technical skills, which are expected to make up more than 80% of the job market within the next decade
  • Expanding programs for teens, including the YMCA Safe Place Services counseling for teens who have run away from home and the YMCA Black Achievers teen mentoring and career development program
  • A place where families can drop their children off for short-term care while they use the YMCA and/or other on-site services
  • A free or reduced-rate public meeting space
  • Easy access from a new rapid bus transit station, as well as for pedestrians
  • Building features that welcome families and people with disabilities (e.g., a family locker room to enable elder and child care, a shallow-water pool that people can more easily access)

Under the same guiding principle of health equity, the Y is exploring a potential partnership with the Jefferson County public school system that would put a new elementary school on site; Tarver believes that could help ensure students and their families have the community support they need to thrive.

“We may not end health disparities,” Tarver says. “But we can make a dent in them. And we will keep [the goal of ending them] in front of us as an aspiration.”


‘A whack upside the head’ that changed the Y’s trajectory

The Louisville Y’s focus on health equity can be traced back to 2007-08, a period Tarver now views as a crossroads for the organization. The Y had emerged from the 1990s as “very popular, very successful, very fiscally sound.”

“And yet, when we took a look at the communities around us, we recognized that people’s health was worse than it had ever been in history,” he explains. He concedes this is a national problem — not just the Y’s. Still, he says, “That picture didn’t look right.”

It was a reckoning that led Tarver to rethink the Y’s 166-year-old history in Kentuckiana and the organization’s classic definition of health as something fully within an individual’s control. Tarver also confronted his own past, which is deeply entwined with the Y’s. He learned to swim at a Florida Y as a 5- or 6-year-old, became a lifeguard earning $1 per hour at age 14 (back when that was the norm), and went on to serve in roles as varied as janitor, camp counselor, and bus driver along the way toward a leadership position. Health was always his main focus, but the principles behind health equity never crossed his mind.

Louisville: More than hats, horses, and mint julips

Located on the Ohio River at the Indiana border, Louisville — perhaps best known as the site of the Kentucky Derby — has long been known by residents as a “middle ground” and “gateway to the South.” Learn more about the history of Louisville in our sidebar below.

“I’m embarrassed now to say that I thought if you wanted to be healthy, you just changed the way you went about making your decisions,” he says. “You add some physical activity, you improve your nutrition, you take walks at night, you shop for better food choices. That was easy for me to say — my family had access to those choices, but many families don’t.”

Tarver also attributes his new understanding to an inspiring mentor: Dr. Adewale Troutman, an internationally known leader in public health and longtime Louisville resident.

One day the two were working on a grant together. Troutman said, “Do you know what I’d do if I had to pick one thing to change the health of our community?”

At the time, Tarver’s mind immediately jumped to answers like “more treadmills” and “community walks.” But Troutman’s response was to improve the high school graduation rate, which research shows is highly correlated to better outcomes around drug use, hunger, violence, poverty, and more.

“I’m embarrassed now to say that I thought if you wanted to be healthy, you just changed the way you went about making your decisions. You add some physical activity, you improve your nutrition, you take walks at night, you shop for better food choices. That was easy for me to say — my family had access to those choices, but many families don’t.”

“That was a whack upside the head that transformed my perspective and the trajectory of our YMCA,” Tarver says.

Under Tarver’s leadership, with strong support of the Board of Directors, the Y went on to acquire the site for its branch at 1720 West Broadway in 2012, which was vacated by Philip Morris. And today, the YMCA of Greater Louisville’s 15 branches (the Republic Bank Foundation branch will be the 16th) are collectively recognized as one of the early adopters of health equity in the Y system.


Not for the community. With the community.

A health equity lens also demands an inclusive approach. For 30 years, the YMCA had heard pleas from residents to expand its footprint westward. And over the years that the west Louisville Y went from an idea to a reality, project leaders intentionally sought out residents’ perspectives and used what they learned to shape next steps.

“Community members told us, ‘Please do not come into west Louisville and do things for us. Please do things with us,’” Tarver recalls. “So, we used a much different community engagement methodology than we ever have in the history of our Y.”

That methodology started with a formal market research study, conducted in collaboration with the University of Louisville, that targeted 964 people living in west Louisville. Residents expressed a strong interest in health and medical services, a swimming pool, youth programs, leadership and character development programs, and more.

Says Tarver, “That study has been something of a bible to us on this journey.” It informed the Y’s search for a site, as well as broad services that will be delivered by the partners.

The Y has also facilitated a series of community feedback sessions and set up processes to continue the feedback loop over time. For example, in the building’s design phase, area children viewed a half-dozen playground designs and voted on the one of their choice. Another example: The Y plans to use an iterative feedback model for its fitness center. It will track which equipment people use and request, and then routinely refresh the center based on those findings. That’s a marked contrast to the organization’s typical approach, which is to pack the fitness center floor before opening and assume people have what they want and need.

Additionally, Tarver added a critical caveat to partners’ building leases: “It says you agree to put a senior leader from your organization on our Vision Committee, whose only function is to protect the vision of community-integrated health within the facility. That is not just a request. That is a lease requirement.”

Guiding committee principles include creating a continuum of health, from providing primary healthcare to evidence-based prevention programs; reducing the negative impact of social determinants of health; advancing human connections and relationships; and taking an optimistic outlook that focuses on building assets in the community versus “fixing” deficits.


New Market Tax Credits: An incredible — and incredibly complex — funding mechanism

The Republic Bank Foundation YMCA was mainly funded by the federal government’s New Markets Tax Credits (NMTC) Program. Like most tax credits, NMTCs help spur investment and economic growth. But they are designed to do so specifically in low-income neighborhoods like those in west Louisville — neighborhoods that have historically lacked their fair share of access to the private investment needed to grow businesses, create jobs, and support residents through healthcare options, fresh foods, and more.

Institutions called Community Development Entities (CDEs) can receive NMTC allocations from the government in a competitive application process. These CDEs operate as financial intermediaries, essentially doling out the tax credits in exchange for private capital from large bank investors – money which must be funneled to organizations seeking to better serve a low-income community.

In the case of the Republic Bank Foundation Y, Capital One Bank provided the investment in exchange for $8 million in NMTCs from IFF. Three other CDEs also supported the project: Community Affordable Housing Equity Corporation or CAHEC ($10 million), Community Hospitality Healthcare Services or CHHS ($5 million), and a subdivision of Capital One focused on public finance ($5 million). The project also leveraged NMTCs from the state.

“The fundamental intent of the concept of New Markets Tax Credits is just incredible,” Tarver says in reflecting on paying for the west Louisville Y. “But coordinating the groups of entities, along with their CPAs and attorneys, was a strenuous process.”

Indeed, it takes persistent, determined partners like Tarver to realize the NMTC Program’s vision. “I would absolutely do it again because of the project’s value to the community,” he says. “I’m also very proud of the breadth of collaboration we’re engaged in. I’m humbled, excited, and grateful for the whole journey — and I know the Y and the west Louisville community are up to the task of maintaining the momentum.”

More about Louisville's rich history

Louisville: More than hats, horses, and mint julips

Located on the Ohio River at the Indiana border, Louisville — perhaps best known as the site of the Kentucky Derby — has long been known by residents as a “middle ground” and “gateway to the South.”

Those descriptions have a deep history rooted in Kentucky’s role in the slave trade. Although Louisville was too cold to grow cotton and operate plantations, it imprisoned African Americans in downtown jails called slave pens, then “sold them down the river” to states with warmer climates — the disturbing origination of that expression.

Louisville’s Black residents found heroic ways to resist. During the Civil War, the city sided with the North. Louisville served as a base for as many as 100,000 Union Army troops. Formerly enslaved peoples joined up to serve, while Black residents provided medical care, food, and other services to the troops. Members of the Black community also banded together to release people from the city’s slave pens.

Following the war, Louisville’s Black citizens, unlike their neighbors to the south, were able to vote. Despite Jim Crow laws, they used their collective influence to make critical advances, including the opening of a campus of the University of Louisville for Black students and electing Charles W. Anderson to the Kentucky General Assembly in 1935. Anderson was the first Black American elected to a state legislature following the Reconstruction period.

Some west Louisville residents still remember what they now refer to as “Old Walnut Street” — a thriving 20th century community that was the heart of Black culture and commerce in the city up until the 1960s. Walnut Street (renamed Muhammed Ali Boulevard in 1978) bustled with Black-owned businesses and jazz clubs frequented by greats like Duke Ellington and Louisville’s very own blues diva Helen Humes.

Tragically, Walnut Street was demolished under the banner of the federal government’s “urban renewal” program. More than 100 buildings spanning seven blocks were torn down; only one, the Mammoth Life Insurance building, remains. That, coupled with the redlining practices that plagued the entire nation from the 1930s through the 1970s, undermined countless opportunities for Black families to build wealth and prosper.

Subsequent challenges Louisville residents have faced include the shuttering of the Philip Morris factory in the west end in 1999, which caused 1,400 people to lose jobs. More recently, Wal-Mart considered developing adjacent property to the 20-acre Philip Morris site, but canceled its plans in 2016.

Could a long-awaited revival — ideally one that supports, rather than displaces, west Louisville residents — finally be in sight? The area has received more than $1 billion in investments since 2014. In addition to the YMCA, projects in the works include a $29.5 million U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant for mixed-income housing to replace the Beecher Terrace public-housing complex, a $35 million Louisville Urban League sport facility at 30th Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard, and $35 million to expand Waterfront Park by another 22 acres.

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