- Associated Press - Sunday, January 21, 2018

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - In the fall of 2015, global spirits producer Heaven Hill was on its way to becoming a corporate villain in Louisville’s poverty-stricken California community.

The family-owned company had been linked to a proposed methane plant that had west Louisville residents outraged. And though the project ultimately folded, a wedge had been driven between the distillery and its neighbors.

In the past two years, however, Heaven Hill has quietly shifted its image from enemy to hero.

West Louisville leaders now praise the company for its participation in community services and events. They say they wouldn’t be able to assist as many people without Heaven Hill donations. And they wish more corporations would follow suit.

How did this change take place?

First, Heaven Hill admitted its mistake.

The company - known for producing Evan Williams and other bourbons - has operated a distillery on Breckinridge Street in the California neighborhood since 1999.

When it first moved in, owner Max Shapira and his family members promised then Metro Councilman George Unseld that the distillery would serve as a good neighbor by getting involved with the surrounding community, said Larry Kass, director of trade relations.

But over the years, Heaven Hill failed to become a strong player in the neighborhood’s revitalization efforts - something made evident to the Shapira family during the methane plant protests, Kass said.

“It is one of those things where, at the end of the day, our relationship with the community was strengthened by that experience,” Kass said. “… It did force us to talk to a lot of people. Today, a lot of people that were very much opposed to that project are people that support what we’re doing.”

Now, Heaven Hill runs a charitable giving program that’s donated thousands of dollars to nonprofits doing work in California and other west Louisville neighborhoods.

Projects funded through the program include turkey giveaways with Community Connections in Portland; cold food storage for Dare to Care Food Bank; and the restoration of vacant homes through Jesus and a Job.

The donations have enabled leaders of the assisted nonprofits to stretch their operations and better address residents’ needs.

But more than the money, the leaders say they appreciate Heaven Hill’s desire to spend time with nonprofits’ participants.

“They show up at every event, they want to know how they can help behind the scenes,” said James Linton, co-founder of Community Connections. “That’s a great partnership. I was shocked how much they worked and work with us on putting these events together.”

Rev. Charles Elliott, the pastor at King Solomon Missionary Baptist Church, said Heaven Hill has supported the California church’s Jesus and a Job program, which puts unemployed men to work renovating vacant homes.

Last year, the distillery also provided a free ride on the Belle of Louisville for 50 families who’d experienced homicides.

“When I got acquainted with Heaven Hill, they had not been involved as much as they should have been involved, and they admitted that,” Elliott said. “Some of the reason was they didn’t know who to get involved with.

“I can say a lot of good things about them. But they put their money and their heart in it. That’s what counts.”

Heaven Hill has facilities and offices in downtown Louisville, St. Matthews and Bardstown, Kentucky, as well. But Kass said a disproportionate amount of the company’s charitable funds go toward educational, health and cultural enrichment efforts in the west end.

In fall 2017, the company completed a $25-million expansion of its California distillery. And this year, it plans to use momentum from that project to continue its work with west Louisville organizations.

“I want to stress that we are fairly quiet in what we do,” Kass said. “We do it because it’s the right thing to do. … We’re happy to be now looked at as really a kind of very positive force in Louisville in general and the West End.”


Information from: The Courier-Journal, http://www.courier-journal.com

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