What began as a migration trail for buffalo and Native Americans is now one of Louisville’s most bustling neighborhoods and dynamic business districts.
Frankfort Avenue is the main thoroughfare of an area that encompasses Crescent Hill and Clifton, whose quaint cottages, high-style urban condos and myriad style houses attract young professionals, empty nesters and families.
That’s not to say the residential life of Frankfort Avenue and its environs are all about new housing and transplanted residents. Crescent Hill and Clifton have long been established as neighborhoods for a diverse, settled population who love the convenience and conviviality that is in abundance.
The often-bandied-about, hard to get a grip on “sense of community” comes alive here and perfectly expresses the essence of Frankfort Avenue – boosted uniquely. Whereas it is common in many cities for a business district to diminish or destroy that sense of community, the Frankfort Avenue Business Association (FABA) has instilled distinguishing verve and vitality to the area just east of downtown Louisville. Far from being nuisances and intrusions, businesses are helping define the area with singular character.
The Frankfort Avenue Business District has been the driving force behind the burgeoning growth of commerce in the area. It has worked with Louisville Metro government to create a favorable business climate, and to develop programs and promotions to increase the visibility of individual businesses as well as the area’s business community as a whole.
Frankfort Avenue also is one of the city’s primary culinary corridors, boasting several of the city’s top-tier restaurants, such as Varanese, Volare, Basa Modern Vietnamese, Bourbons Bistro, Porcini and L&N Bistro and Wine Bar. But food and wine connoisseurs know that part of the delicious fun of Frankfort Avenue is visiting other hot spots such as El Mundo, Irish Rover, North End Café, Grape Leaf, Caffe Classico and Clifton Pizza.
While Frankfort Avenue is known for its restaurants and cafes, the business district has attracted an impressive array of boutiques, art studios and galleries, wine shops, hair salons and many small businesses. Carmichael’s Bookstore, Sister Dragonfly and Margaret’s Consignment Shop are venerable stores that epitomize the independent businesses of FABA.
As retail thrives and grows on Frankfort Avenue, the association’s membership is strengthened also by the inclusion of many churches; entities such as Clifton Center, which houses conference and performance spaces; and the American Printing House for the Blind.
Not all members of FABA are located on Frankfort Avenue. A prime example of the geographical divergence is the Mellwood Art and Entertainment Center, a quarter mile north on Mellwood Avenue. The Center’s 42 acres house artist’s and teaching studios, shops, restaurants, offices and special event space that is the scene of art fairs, film festivals and concerts.
“America is falling in love with neighborhoods again,” said Don Burch, owner of Quest Outdoors and president of the Frankfort Avenue Business Association. “When the real estate market was suffering, the retail values of houses in Crescent Hill increased or stabilized, whereas in other neighborhoods they have decreased or been steady. Southern Living magazine recently picked Crescent Hill one of the 10 Best Comeback Neighborhoods where you can walk to stores and restaurants.
“But first and foremost,” Burch said, “the Frankfort Avenue area is a hot spot because there are so many high-quality restaurants, shops and galleries. It gets better every year.”
FABA was organized in 1990 to increase awareness of and revenue in the business district.
“It has been such a success because it has attracted such a good mix of members and represents a real cross-section of businesses,” said John Johnson, owner of The Wine Rack and a former association president. “FABA is definitely a positive force for growth in the area. We’re fortunate to have many motivated and inspirational entrepreneurs on Frankfort Avenue. FABA brings businesses together and channels our energies into projects that benefit all of us.”
John Varanese, owner of Varanese restaurant, thinks FABA has been instrumental in encouraging new businesses to locate along the corridor and offers a support structure that helps increase the visibility of and enhance the image of those businesses. He also likes the very convivial relationship that has developed among FABA members.
Burch regards the group’s frankfortave.com online presence as one of the primary benefits to members.
“The Web site details special Frankfort Avenue events and, very importantly, it allows member businesses to promote their own sales and events. The businesses use it wisely and often, realizing its enormous potential,” he said.
Another benefit to FABA members is the services of a public relations company retained by the organization to provide PR assistance to individual members as part of their membership package. Burch said businesses realize the value of being able to take advantage of professional services that they probably would not otherwise be able to afford.
“Although there are many benefits to being a member of the Frankfort Avenue Business Association, perhaps one of the biggest is the networking opportunities it offers to members. Business owners have so many chances to share ideas and to learn from each other. And they really go out of their way to give each other business,” noted Burch.
“FABA can’t take all the credit, but it has been extremely important in making the district successful,” he said. He cites Louisville Metro Councilwoman Tina Ward Pugh as a strong supporter and cheerleader for the organization.
One of FABA’s primary functions is to publish the Guide to Historic Frankfort Avenue, which is distributed at the airport, in hotels and to sponsors.
“It’s rare there are problems between the area residents and businesses, but when they do occur FABA acts as a liaison,” said Johnson. “Most importantly, FABA interacts with the neighborhood so that the association, merchants and residents identify common concerns and work on issues and projects that affect us all.”
FABA sponsors several events and participates in others. December’s Old Thyme Christmas on Frankfort Avenue features a holiday bazaar, dog walk, carriage rides, a visit by Santa and activities in individual stores. The 2009 Santa Stroll and Sprint benefit raised more than $20,000 for United Crescent Hill Ministries (UCHM).
The Easter Parade now attracts visitors from around the city. And the Old-Fashioned Fourth of July, held at the Peterson-Dumesnil House, has become one of the summer’s most anticipated events; proceeds from FABA’s beer truck go to UCHM.
When city money became available for new benches and garbage cans, FABA took the initiative and neighbors got involved. The organization also funded banners that hang above the street to promote the Fourth of July parade, Clifton Center, Old Tyme Christmas and the Easter Parade.
F.A.T. Friday, the Frankfort Avenue trolley hop, takes place the last Friday of each month. Now in its sixth year, this FABA idea long ago ceased being a neighborhood event and pulls people in from all over the city. Participants catch trolleys along a specified route and can stop at many locations to shop, stroll with friends, have dinner and enjoy entertainment at various venues. Stores hold special sales or promotions and there are frequently artist receptions and demonstrations.
The trolley hops were the brainchild of artist Lynn Dunbar, said Nancy Alvey, owner of Crescent Hill Art Gallery. In the early days, Alvey and Dunbar spent considerable time “working out the kinks” – making sure the trolleys were stopping at the right places and overseeing that sponsors had posters and promotional material to get their names out. She said from 1,500 to 2,000 people ride the trolleys during the summer and 700 to 800 in the winter. But she adds that many people opt to walk instead of ride the trolleys during nice weather, greatly increasing the attendance.
John Johnson now heads up F.A.T. Friday and reports FABA has plans to enhance the thematic trolley hops that are held during the year, including the Derby Hop in April, the Halloween Hop, and the Holiday Hop that takes place the day after Thanksgiving. Other Hops will be dedicated to corporate sponsors such as Brown-Forman and Maker’s Mark. Last year’s Finlandia Tangerine Hop was regarded as one of the most popular. Johnson said the themed trolley hops significantly help build the sponsors’ brands and are a way for FABA to show its appreciation to sponsors. The trolley hops also have local business sponsors.
“The Trolley Hops are so important because they bring new people to the area who don’t live here. They have made Frankfort Avenue a destination place for visitors who say they can’t wait to come back,” said new FABA member Nadine Hearn, owner of Conez & Coneyz, an ice cream and gourmet hot dog business.
A dedicated core of business owners may be the driving force behind the organization, but all business owners are encouraged to attend the weekly Friday morning meetings and to take an active role.
“Going to the regular meetings and becoming active in the association have been very valuable to me and to my business because it is such a great support network,” said Hearn.
Johnson believes the association meets more frequently than any other business association in town. In 2009 dues rose from $50 to $75, the first increase in its history. “It’s the best $75 you can spend if you own a business here,” said Johnson. FABA’s approximate $100,000 budget is derived from membership dues, advertising sales in the Guide to Historic Frankfort Avenue, and revenue from F.A.T. Fridays.
“The biggest challenge to FABA is the amount of time volunteers have to spend to make it viable and successful. We have a pool of volunteers who are always available to help but sometimes they get a little weary because they’re always carrying the ball. We’re constantly encouraging new people to become involved,” said Burch.
“Of course, keeping commercial space occupied is vital to the success of the entire district. When there’s an empty building, we’re anxious to see the lights come on. We talk in terms of light and life. And we’re continually improving the street so even more businesses want to locate here. We pay close attention to aesthetics and improve the look of the street by installing new benches and replacing the banners,” he added.
“There are some challenges we face that are exclusive of the economy as a whole. Parking is a common problem. Also, we have a few spots on the avenue that could use some refurbishing. But that is a very minor issue,” Johnson said.
One of FABA‘s key goals and challenges is to continue to create successful events, bringing visitors to the district and solidifying Frankfort Avenue as an attractive, interesting and engaging place to live and work. Membership offers businesses access to promote sales or events on the frankfortave.com Web site.
“We have been through a tough economic time for the past couple of years. As a shopping area and neighborhood, we’ve fared pretty well. I think that speaks to the strength of FABA’s membership and the neighborhood itself. As the economy strengthens, we’re optimistic that we’re going to gain our second wind and will do even better,” said Burch.
“To keep growing is a challenge because eventually we’ll run out of room, but I don’t think we have to worry about that for awhile,” Alvey said with a laugh.
Nancy Miller is a correspondent for The Lane Report.