The former Black Leaf property in Louisville’s West End, one of Kentucky’s most infamous Superfund sites, will house the operations of Stellar Snacks, Gov. Andy Beshear and other officials announced Tuesday.

The Carson City, Nevada-based, woman-owned company plans to invest $137 million as it opens a production facility in a newly built 434,000-square-foot warehouse in the Park Hill neighborhood. Vegan pretzels and other snack foods will be baked and packaged on site, with operations expected to start later next year.

About 350 full-time jobs are envisioned for the site over its first 10 years, marking “the biggest jobs announcement in west Louisville in at least the last several decades,” Beshear said.

The nearly 28-acre lot along Dixie Highway has sat idle since 2006. Following clean-up efforts over the last decade, DH QOZB LLC, registered to prominent local developer Steve Poe, bought the property in April 2021 for $550,000, according to the deed. He secured city approval to build the warehouse shell in 2021.

Elisabeth Galvin founded Stellar Snacks with her daughter in 2019.

“Stellar is not only going to bring the wonderful smell of buttery pretzels in the air, but the smell of opportunity and hope for a better tomorrow,” she said.

The site is one of many examples of brownfields and legacy pollution concentrated in Louisville’s predominantly Black and low-income communities, leaving further economic and health burdens in their wake. The Black Leaf property is less than half a mile from the abandoned Rhodia chemical complex, a brownfield soon to be redeveloped into a mixed-use development, officials announced this summer.

The former Black Leaf property in West Louisville on Tuesday, October 17, 2023

When will Stellar Snacks begin operations here?

The company will make its investment and hires over the next 10 years, but plans to begin baking its first products at the Park Hill facility by September 2024.

Hiring will begin around March, though applications are already being accepted. The company has indicated plans to prioritize hiring West End-based workers.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear along with Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg as well as other state and local officials announced that pretzel manufacturer Stellar Snacks of Carson City, Nevada, made the commitment to invest $137 million dollars and bring 350 full-time jobs to West Louisville. Oct. 17, 2023.

Stellar Snacks is looking for employees from production roles and mechanics to human resources and receptionists, and will work with local community colleges and trade schools to provide hands-on experience for students, according to a news release from the governor’s office.

Galvin said the facility is expected to open with around 100 employees and will grow in following years. She said she hopes the jobs created will bring opportunity for those who work there.

“Really caring is so important,” she said of her employees. “If people want to learn baking and care, this is the right place.”

What is the legacy of the Black Leaf property?

The former Black Leaf site housed various industrial uses for more than a century, including “a pesticide formulating operation, a whiskey distillery, and several wood drying and lumber distribution companies,” according to an Environmental Protection Agency report. The site’s name comes from Black Leaf 40, a nicotine-based insecticide produced at the site before it was banned for its high toxicity.
The EPA designated the site for Superfund cleanup in 2011, and extensive, costly cleanup of the toxic chemicals left saturating the soil by past industrial occupants followed. Three companies were deemed responsible, through mergers and acquisitions, for paying into cleanup costs: ExxonMobil, Greif, and Occidental Chemical Corp.

The Park Hill neighborhood surrounding the site is predominantly Black. Census tracts surrounding the site are federally designated as disadvantaged, with low life expectancy and high rates of heart disease, asthma and diabetes.

In field investigations by the EPA, the Kentucky Department of Environmental Protection and consultants, hundreds of soil samples were taken at the Black Leaf site over several years.

The samples showed toxins many times higher than EPA standards even for industrial uses, which are less stringent than residential standards. Contaminants included neurotoxic metals like arsenic and lead, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, commonly known as DDT — the highly toxic, possibly carcinogenic pesticide banned in the 1970s in the wake of Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” and ensuing public outcry.

Some of the contaminants were found to have leached into neighboring residential properties. State regulators detected DDT in nearby yards, and some residents had elevated levels of arsenic in their blood, The Courier Journal reported in 2018.

Beshear said Tuesday the state is confident the remediation was “more than sufficient and is complete.”

“The food coming out of here is not only going to be safe and healthy but also delicious,” he said.

Cleaning up the Black Leaf site

Plans for cleaning up the Black Leaf property involved demolishing existing structures, removing foundations, and hauling away contaminated soil.

Cleanup for the site also limited future uses to industrial and commercial purposes, not residential. In past Courier Journal reporting, some had called for the property to be made safe for housing, in light of shortages.

The Kentucky hub for the Nevada company is part of a growth plan focused on the east, said Aidan McAuley, director of sales.

“We’ve reached the point where we’re starting to send significant product out east, so the idea is to find a location that’s closer to be able to serve that,” he said.

McAuley said Kentucky has been on Stellar Snacks’ radar since earlier this year, and the interest from local and state officials, along with a relatively lower cost of doing business, drew the company to Louisville.

“When they heard that they were in the running, they really engaged,” he said. “We were blown away by the hospitality.”

What’s ahead for the development?

Work to transform the site from an empty warehouse into a giant bakery is set to start in March.

These incentives include funding to offset training costs and to bring rail directly to the site, said Kristina Slattery, commissioner of business and community development. Another possible incentive would reward the company for hiring from within the nine neighborhoods that make up the West End.