One of Somerset’s major downtown projects received attention from a prominent state leader Friday – and not in a positive way.
A lot of focus and attention has been given to the proposed University of Somerset over the past few months. Somerset’s mayor, Alan Keck, has been front and center in the public relations and fundraising efforts for the four-year university that is set to go into the former Cundiff Square.
But the project has had its share of controversy, mostly surrounding the circumstances in which the former residents of the Cundiff Square’s townhouses were forced to move from their homes in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Friday, State Representative Attica Scott, a Democrat who represents District 41 (Louisville), made a lengthy Facebook post which she titled “This is a story about shady development in Somerset, Ky.”
Scott detailed the timeline of the project, from the sale and eventual transfer of the property to the city to the announcement that the University of Somerset would locate there, to the creation of a Tax Increment Finance (TIF) district to help fund infrastructure.
“The timeline suggests that the mayor encouraged the city to purchase the property and evict tenants, knowing that the university board wished to locate their university there – all the while pretending that this was not the case,” Scott said in her statement.
She goes on to question whether Keck and the others involved would profit financially from the private university, stating that the board is made up of the Mayor’s “friends.”
She specifically references Keck himself being the university board’s chair; Chris Girdler, the President and CEO of the Somerset-Pulaski Economic Development Authority (SPEDA), being a board member; and Keck’s brother, Michael Keck, being the university’s vice president – a paid position.
As part of discussing Girdler, Scott calls his organization, SPEDA, “a private entity which is used as somewhat of a financing loophole for economic development projects ...”
It is worth noting that SPEDA is not a “private entity” but a quasi-governmental board that is funded primarily through Pulaski County Government dollars.
When asked about Scott’s statements, Girdler said, “I appreciate Attica’s public service and her surprising interest in the great things taking place in Somerset and Pulaski County. I would welcome the opportunity for her to visit Somerset, break bread together and discuss the facts. I think she will walk away with a different viewpoint rather than the outlandish accusations, untruths and conspiracy theories she has shared on social media.”
When asked by the Commonwealth Journal if he could point to anything in particular that was untrue, Girdler said he could but did not specify which statements he was talking about.
Mayor Keck, on the other hand, did address some of the specifics of Scott’s statements, including the idea that the board was made up exclusively of his “friends.”
Keck said he had a lot of respect and admiration for the members of the university board, “but I don’t spend time socially with most of them.”
Mayor Keck also responded to the Scott’s concerns about him being both mayor and the chairman of the university board, saying that he understands the caution, “but I think the benefit to the community I serve as mayor can be so great that my involvement in the board to get this off the ground is necessary.”
That’s not to say that he plans on being on the board forever, he said, and he sees a time when he will need to step down.
As for having his brother, Michael Keck, as a paid employee of the university, Keck said he saw no issues with his involvement. “It’s a private institution … and no taxpayer money is going towards his wage,” Mayor Keck said, adding that he felt Michael Keck was as qualified as anyone in the community to be in that position.
One of the major concerns raised by the community over the project was that the residents of the apartment complex that use to reside at Cundiff Square were evicted in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Scott’s post stated, “During the spring of 2020, at the height of a global pandemic, the City of Somerset pushed the property owner to displace disabled, elderly, families with children, and low-income residents living in the housing on the property. The timeline was at the request of the mayor. Residents were provided with a 90-day eviction notice; however, water service was shut down two to three weeks before eviction, causing extreme hardship on residents. Despite the pandemic, the mayor prioritized beginning development on projects yet to be announced to the city.”
Keck disputed the claim that water was shut off prior to the 90 days.
“I have no knowledge of water being shut off, neither does the property owner,” Keck said.
He did say, however, some residents had discontinued paying rent, but that was “without ramification” because they were being asked to move.
Keck also denied involvement in the actual eviction process. “First of all, we didn’t do the eviction. That was the property owner,” Keck said.
The original deal was made in February 2020, with the city actually taking control of the property in June, a timeline of four and a half months, according to Keck.
“I would have loved to close much sooner, but I wanted to ensure that the folks who lived there and do business there had ample time to find a new place to go.”
But while Keck denied the city’s involvement in the eviction, he did say, “The property owner knew that razing the buildings was the eventual goal, and the city’s not a landlord. We thought it would be best for them to be vacant when we took ownership.”
Keck also said that to the best of his knowledge, only one person reached out for help during the actual eviction process.
“The outcry and frustration didn’t actually occur until people learned that the university was going there,” he said.
Another one of Scott’s statements that Keck took exception to what her assertion that the city’s current postsecondary educational institution, Somerset Community College, was not aware of the project before it was announced.
She stated that there was “zero collaboration” with SCC, and went on to say, “When the first news article on the university ran in the local paper, coinciding with the mayor’s initial public announcement on social media, this was the first the SCC president had heard of the endeavor.
Keck disputed that, saying that meetings took place with SCC president Dr. Carey Castle, Keck himself and the late Dr. Michael Hail, one of the driving forces behind the University of Somerset. Those meetings were “long before the announcement was made public,” Keck said.
As for the implementing of the TIF district, Scott claims, “The city designated an area of the city for the TIF which is a low-income and historically Black community. This area, unsurprisingly, included the proposed site for the university at Cundiff Square. When asked at a city council meeting what businesses they hoped the TIF would entice to the area, the SPEDA president gave no conclusive response.”
While both the public and city council was made aware that a TIF district was to be enacted in the area where the university was planned, Mayor Keck and those pushing to create the TIF “refused to acknowledge that this was their plan during the city council meetings where the TIF was discussed,” according to Scott.
Keck said he believed the TIF could help the surrounding areas grow. “No question. But the TIF was not put in place for the university.”
Additionally, he admitted that the downtown area is seeing a renaissance of sorts before the TIF is even activated, and out of the three planned TIF districts, he would rank the downtown TIF as third-most important.
Keck, like Girdler, said he has not met Rep. Scott before her post hit social media. He said he had reached out to her office on Friday, hoping to meet with her and discuss the points.
“My hope is that she was fed poor information,” he said, and that she may not understand that much of it is “flat out wrong.”