Tom Eblen: With the Games gone, now what?

Lexington shouldn't squander its newfound confidence, energy

Herald-Leader columnistOctober 13, 2010 

We did it. Now, what do we do next?

After five years of planning and anticipation, the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games have come and gone. The Games went well, and almost every visitor I met remarked on how friendly Kentuckians were.

There were a few glitches, of course — and there would have been more without last-minute infusions of money and skill from the title sponsor, Alltech. But the world's top equestrians seemed to be pleased with the Games, and they raved about the Kentucky Horse Park's facilities.

The Games' attendance was a half-million people, including several hundred journalists, 6,000 volunteers and 63,000 students whose admissions were paid by Alltech's business partners. I suspect more paying spectators would have come had it not been for some overpriced tickets and hotels.

We don't know yet if the Games made or lost money, but such calculations usually involve a lot of fuzzy math. We might never know if the estimated $107 million in public investment in facilities and infrastructure was immediately recouped in overall economic impact.

But the new facilities at Horse Park — already a big economic engine for this region — will pay dividends for decades as the park is able to attract more, bigger and better events.

"This is not about the next 16 days," Horse Park director John Nicholson told me on opening day. "The success and notoriety of these Games will ensure that we remain the horse capital of the world for the next 50 to 100 years."

That is important, especially considering the growth of the sport horse industry in Kentucky as Thoroughbred racing battles decline. Veterinarian Tom Riddle of Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital estimates there are twice as many sport horses in the region as there were five years ago.

Beyond the horse industry, only time will tell how successful the Games were at attracting long-term economic development to Kentucky. They certainly didn't hurt. The Games showed visitors Kentucky at its best, and NBC's television coverage amounted to a long video Valentine.

When is all said and done, though, the Games' most significant legacy might be what they taught Kentuckians — and especially Lexingtonians — about themselves.

The Games forced politicians to get serious about long-needed infrastructure improvements. Good planning and logistics prevented the traffic jams many had feared.

LexTran was a star performer. Thousands of locals rode LexTran buses for the first time — and all of those I talked with were impressed. Just as the beautiful new Legacy Trail has promoted fitness and alternative transportation, LexTran's performance helped affluent Lexingtonians see the value and potential of good public transportation.

Lexington's investment in downtown paid off as more than 175,000 people, according to police estimates, flocked to the city center for Games-related concerts and festivals, and patronized restaurants and bars.

The entertainers were good. But what impressed me most were the large crowds, which, for the first time I can recall, truly reflected Lexington's diversity. "I think we witnessed something really interesting downtown," said Urban League President P.G. Peeples.

I lived in Knoxville before, during and after the 1982 World's Fair and in Atlanta before, during and after the 1996 Olympics. Neither event went as smoothly as Lexington's WEG.

Those events' most important legacy to Atlanta and Knoxville, even beyond significant infrastructure improvements, was civic confidence. Leaders and citizens in those cities gained the confidence to again try new, different and ambitious things. I sense that same confidence in Lexington this week, and it must not be allowed to dissipate.

The Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games showcased Kentucky and underscored the value of preserving its beauty and developing its potential. The Games showed what we can accomplish by working together with specific goals and firm deadlines.

After a few good nights' sleep, Kentuckians must get back to work. We must figure out how to harness this energy and confidence to achieve bigger, more important things than a sporting event — things that will improve Kentucky's long-term economy and quality of life. We need specific goals and firm deadlines.

Lexington and Kentucky performed well for 16 days in the international spotlight. If we can do that, what else can we do?

Reach Tom Eblen at teblen@herald-leader.com or (859) 231-1415 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 1415. Read and comment on his blog, The Bluegrass & Beyond, at Kentucky.com.

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