Louisville Gardens studio plan includes downtown entertainment industry ‘campus’ | In-depth

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Four soundstages for film, television and other projects spanning 40,000 square feet of production room. A theater, office and retail space, and a museum.

On the outside, a restored façade and the return of two eagle statues towering over Muhammad Ali Boulevard.

The shuttered Louisville Gardens at Sixth Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard would get at least a $60 million facelift under plans unveiled Friday that also envision nearby state-owned property to be turned into a training facility for entertainment industry jobs.

That block — between Sixth and Seventh streets, and Ali and Cedar Street — includes parking lots and the Kentucky Career Center.

“We see this becoming a campus around here, and not just this building,” Mayor Greg Fischer said during a press conference at the shuttered arena at Muhammad Ali Boulevard and Fifth Street.

Fischer, whose administration oversaw several unsuccessful attempts to renovate the 117-year-old building, insisted that “this is not a build-it-and-they-will-come project.” Already, he said, $60 million has been invested in productions shot in Jefferson County this year.

“We can help elevate this industry to the level of other signature industries that we have, attract more creatives and young people to our city and add our already stellar performing arts scene,” Fischer said. “This investment really means investing in a whole new industry in our city.”

Louisville Gardens

Louisville Gardens, December 9, 2022.

Metro government signed a letter of intent for the project on Friday with River City Entertainment Group LLC, which would renovate and manage the building. The company – whose principals are executives with music and soundstage production experience – has about six months to sign a development agreement with Mayor-elect Craig Greenberg’s administration.

The letter of intent says the city plans to lease Louisville Gardens, and state financial incentive documents made public Thursday indicate Metro government would charge $1 per year in rent over a 10-year period.

But Jeff O’Brien, chief of the city’s Louisville Forward economic development agency, said those terms aren’t set in stone. “As we work through the development agreement and they do further exploration, then we’ll finalize how the property will actually be held in the long term,” he said.

If all goes to plan, a three-year construction period with 600 to 800 jobs could start next year, said Scott Hodgkins of River City Entertainment Group. He said the project’s budget could exceed $60 million based on the building’s condition and is likely to include additional state tax incentives. 

“We’re looking at something where in four years, hopefully we can open doors and bring all of that new economic influx into the city,” he said.

The company received preliminary approval Thursday from the Kentucky Economic Development Finance Authority for $700,000 in local and state wage incentives over the next decade. Those incentives are based on 50 full-time jobs being created with an average hourly wage of $58, which includes benefits.

But Hodgkins estimated that up to 200 jobs would be connected with the filming of a movie or an extended series in the area. “So that’s the real opportunity we think this presents for the city,” he said.

State film incentives that were enacted in 2021 and made available this year have resulted in 58 films approved with budgets of more than $150 million, including 6,228 jobs from people based in Kentucky, said Soozie Eastman, president of 502 Film and chair of the Louisville Film Commission.

“We’ve seen other cities like New Orleans in Atlanta build studios like this,” she said. “This investment from the River City Entertainment Group grows Louisville’s opportunity to attract more productions and support services here and invites creatives to come and to stay in our community.”

Formed for the Gardens project, River City Entertainment Group has ties to real estate investment firm Xebec. Hodgkins, who is based in Nashville, is the company’s executive vice president and chief financial and administrative officers. 

Xebec CEO Randy Kendrick has an ownership stake of at least 20 percent in River City Entertainment Group, according to documents connected to the public incentives approved Thursday. 

Tony Guanci, a principal in the River City group, is the founder and chairman of EDGEOUT Records and vice chairman of Danny Wimmer Presents, which has produced festivals in Louisville such as Bourbon & Beyond and Louder Than Life. 

Early plans call for a museum honoring Louisville Gardens and restoring an upstairs theater for “some type of entertainment,” Guanci said. He also suggested that special productions could use the building during events like the Kentucky Derby.  

Speaking at Louisville Gardens, Guanci said the goal for the facility is to not only attract film and television projects, but digital media used by younger content creators such as TikTok and Instagram. 

“It’s an economy. The platform and the delivery is different than what you might see in a feature film level,” he said. “But it is something that is an industry that needs to be paid attention.” 

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