In one of Louisville's poorest neighbourhoods, a formerly abandoned community center is making enormous strides — and even Google has taken note

RevolutionShawn Arvin presents to the Rise of the Rest team at Love City, a Google-backed community center in Louisville, Kentucky.

  • Google Fibre, Alphabet’s high-speed internet provider, built a $US25,000 startup incubator within a community center in an overlooked part of Louisville, Kentucky.
  • The mayor, local entrepreneurs, and national investors have all championed the center, which is called Love City.
  • The center has catered to hundreds of locals and its founders also opened the neighbourhood’s only sit-down restaurant.
  • In a recent investing trip to Louisville, AOL founder Steve Case and “Hillbilly Elegy” author JD Vance said it’s an example of how entrepreneurship can benefit struggling communities.
  • This article is part of Business Insider’s ongoing series on Better Capitalism.

When Shawn Arvin’s wife Inga told him that she wanted to move to Portland, all he could think was that it was the neighbourhood where he used to buy drugs.

“I surely hope you mean Oregon,” he told her.

What he knew, however, was that Inga was referring to the Portland neighbourhood in Western Louisville, Kentucky, bordering the Ohio River. It’s a neighbourhood that’s not simply struggling – it’s the tenth-poorest neighbourhood in the United States, according to a 2016 Brookings Institute study.

But the couple decided it was worth investing in not despite its reputation, but because of it.

That was 2015. Now, after just three years, they have attracted the support of Google Fibre, Alphabet’s high-speed internet company, and have been serving hundreds of Portland residents through their community center, Love City.

I had a chance to visit Love City in early May, on the last stop of AOL cofounder Steve Case’s seventh Rise of the Rest bus tour, run through his Washington, DC-based venture capital firm, Revolution. During the tour, Case and his team toured five cities in the southeastern part of the US, establishing partnerships and awarding the winner of a daily pitch competition $US100,000. JD Vance, a former Silicon Valley investor and the author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” oversees the $US150 million Rise of the Rest seed fund, for startups that fall outside of the main entrepreneurial centres: the Valley, New York City, and Boston.

When we arrived, we were one day after Love City’s grand reopening.

It looks a bit like a wacky high school: a flat-roofed, two-story building painted a dull blue and maroon, enclosed by a chain-link fence. Two green and yellow pillars topped by pineapple carvings mark the entrance, where Shawn and Inga greeted us. Shawn is short, tatted-up, and talkative, and has a distinct drawl. Inga is tall and reserved.

The couple bought the building when its owner said he would only sell them the house they wanted if they took this abandoned community center off his hands. The couple didn’t know what to do with it, but agreed.

The couple fixed up the center over 11 weeks and named it Love City, inspired by Christian values of loving and supporting your neighbours. Shawn didn’t expect himself to dedicate himself so fully to such a project, but being in the neighbourhood triggered something.

“These are my people,” Shawn told me. He grew up not far from the neighbourhood, in a similar setting. His mother was a prostitute and his father absent. He escaped a cycle of poverty in his 40s, after getting a college degree and solid job. He met Inga in Rome, where they were studying abroad for Bellarmine University’s executive MBA program.

The Arvins decided to use the center as a beacon of opportunity in a place where opportunity was virtually nonexistent.

Rise of the rest tourRichard Feloni/Business Insider

Love City held community events like fish fries, Christmas parties, and prayer services, and gave teenagers a place to hang out after school. When hundreds of their neighbours began showing up for events, Shawn quit his job and devoted himself full-time to the center while Inga continued to work at Humana for financial security. They continued to develop the center and fully renovated its basketball court.

The Arvins got some more dirt-cheap property in the neighbourhood: an abandoned building they bought from the Catholic diocese and converted into an affordable barbecue restaurant they dubbed Porkland BBQ, the only sit-down restaurant in the entire neighbourhood. They staffed it with about 25 locals. They have made it known in the neighbourhood that if you don’t have money for the food, they will supply you with a meal if you help out in some way, like cleaning up.

That was this past March. Then Google Fibre, which had laid millions of dollars worth of cables in Louisville, decided to accelerate Love City’s mission as a way of building goodwill with the city. It invested $US25,000 into the center, decking it out with Google’s internet access, smart speakers, screens, and tablets, and adding some new furniture and lighting, establishing Love City as a full-blown entrepreneur center. Mayor Greg Fischer and local entrepreneurs attended the grand reopening.

Shawn and Inga grew emotional as he explained to us how he had overcome personal struggles and found meaning in his work, and how grateful he was for the community’s support for a neglected part of the city. Louisville’s chief ambassador to Case’s team was PNC regional president Chuck Denny, who’s made it his mission to catalyze economic growth in greater Louisville. He grew up poor in this neighbourhood and would play basketball in the community center’s court, the same one the Arvins renovated. Ahead of Shawn’s speech, he told him and Inga, “What you’ve done here is transformative,” adding, “For us to become a great city we have to transform West Louisville.” When we walked to the gymnasium, Chuck Denny’s eyes filled with tears.

I followed up with Shawn in June, and he told me that in the roughly two months since the Google renovation, he’s had about 600 people go through the center and take advantage of its new technology. The week before our follow-up conversation, he said, about 60 Louisville entrepreneurs showed up for a Google-sponsored event.

The Arvins have also used Love City as a destination meeting center. For example, 20 members of a Louisville industrial safety company, ORR, held a meeting at the center, using its high-end tech, and then had a community service project.

But instead of just doing something like picking up trash around the neighbourhood, Shawn told me, he had them split into two teams and hold a competition on a marketing campaign for Porkland BBQ, with the winner’s campaign actually being put to use. The service, then, was helping the restaurant grow, which would in turn employ more locals.

Rise of the rest love cityRevolutionArvin chatted with JD Vance during the bus ride following the Love City tour.

When the bus tour team and I went to visit Porkland BBQ in May, Rise of the Rest partner David Hall told some of his partners, “This, to me, is entrepreneurship,” as they ate barbecue plates. The restaurant currently employs 23 locals, and Shawn said he plans on hiring more. He and Inga are looking to bring in $US250,000 in revenue this year.

Inga told me she regularly monitors the nitty gritty police-reported data of the neighbourhood, and she told me that the biggest indicator of their success was the 35% year-over-year decrease in crime from 2016-2017 in the approximately six-block radius around Love City. She and Shawn are convinced that Love City, with its renovations to property and its services for hundreds of locals, has had a major role to play in this decrease.

The Revolution team brought the couple onto the bus and to the Speed Art Museum for the pitch competition, with Vance giving them a special shout-out in front of the audience. He explained that entrepreneur culture doesn’t have to be intrinsically associated with something like an app startup in Silicon Valley, and that Louisville – or any other city, for that matter – shouldn’t try to mimic that culture but instead develop what’s part of its own identity.

As we had all made our way to the restaurant earlier in the day, Vance and Shawn walked together and chatted. Shawn asked Vance what he did, and Vance said he “wrote a book that sold pretty well,” brushing it off. They talked about their families, and how they both learned to overcome having mothers who loved them but fought personal demons. Shawn waved at a couple of older white men in tank tops hanging out on a beat-up porch across the street. He knew them well, and suggested at this point, his neighbours wouldn’t find it strange that he was leading a line of well-dressed businesspeople to a giant red bus.

“They’re thinking, What’s he got going on now?” he said.

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