When Lexington visitors navigate their way downtown or to the Kentucky Horse Park via signs topped by a blue horse, they might want to thank David Lord for the directions.
The Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau announced Thursday that Lord, the bureau president, will retire March 31, after almost two decades of promoting the city to potential tourists, foreign and domestic.
At first, that task was a bit of a struggle.
"When I first started 17 years ago ... at that time, most of us weren't flying out of Lexington," he said. "We were going to Louisville or Cincinnati. The convention center was really starting to be an embarrassment. ... The Hyatt was in bad shape, the Radisson wasn't marketable, and the Horse Park was still considered 'that state facility out there,' " Lord said.
"Downtown was not alive at all, and nothing was really on the books," he said. "Everybody else around the country was talking about loft apartments. Here, they'd look at you like you were talking about a barn."
Now all those things have changed, and Lord had a hand in much of it. Blue Grass Airport became much more competitive, and the Lexington Center had a total renovation. Both major downtown hotels (the Radisson is now a Hilton), and the Horse Park have been transformed into the top equine competition facility in the United States.
Lord was a key part of the state's successful bid to bring the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games to the Horse Park earlier this fall.
"The influence that David Lord has had has been profound," said John Nicholson, director of the Horse Park, which in September and October hosted the first WEG outside of Europe. "When you think about what's happened in the years since he began his term, it has been almost epic."
Nicholson said Lord saw the potential in viewing equestrian events at the park as "conventions" and worked to bring those people into Lexington and get Lexingtonians out to the park.
And when the Horse Park and the state began talking about bidding for the Games, a set of horse-sport world championships held every four years, Lord "immediately had a grasp of what a game-changer that could be," Nicholson said.
Jim Host, who chaired the World Games 2010 Foundation from 2005 to 2007, said Lord's contributions extend well beyond the horse world.
Host cited Lord's efforts to keep the Bluegrass State Games in Lexington and to locate the Kentucky Sports Authority, a branch of the tourism cabinet, here.
"I think he's done a terrific job for Lexington," Host said. "He's been instrumental in attracting major conventions to the civic center. ... He's meant a lot to Lexington and a lot to Kentucky."
Lord, who will be 63 when he leaves office, said Thursday that as the World Equestrian Games approached and years of work came to a culmination, "it seemed more and more to be an appropriate time."
Last month, Lord had unexpected major heart surgery, but he said his retirement was in the works for a year. "This was a coincidence," he said. He hopes to take a six-month or yearlong sabbatical and consider where to focus his energy next.
Most of the list of major goals he'd set for himself when he came from Tulsa, Okla., have come to fruition. Millions of dollars of public and private money have been invested in revitalizing the heart of Lexington.
"For me, this was the perfect time to walk away," Lord said. "I do feel like, after 17 years, it's very difficult to see things new. That's the great thing about when somebody's new — they don't know all the reasons it won't work."
Reach Janet Patton at (859) 231-3264 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3264.