One year ago, Lexington was wrapping up perhaps the biggest equine-related shindig the state has ever thrown: the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.
Although the European visitors and the horses, Princess Haya and Muhammad Ali, the volunteers and the crowds have long gone home, the landscape of the city has been reshaped in ways that might be felt for years to come.
Was it all worth it? Most community leaders say yes, because of the momentum generated for the city, although several efforts to keep Games-related events going hit a wall this year, including the Spotlight Lexington festival.
For 16 days, from Sept. 25 to Oct. 10, 2010, thousands of spectators from around the world roamed the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington to watch eight championship competitions and hundreds of equine demonstrations. In all, more than half a million people passed through the park gates over the stretch of the Games.
Many flew into Lexington's renovated airport to get there, drove on widened streets or walked on new sidewalks. Or maybe they biked along the 121/2-mile Legacy Trail from downtown. Almost 45,000 people rode LexTran buses on special routes to the park.
They bought or were given more than 400,000 event tickets, shopped the trade shows, stayed at thousands of hotel rooms, and spent an estimated $128 million, according to a state-financed economic study that found that the Games had an overall impact of $201.5 million in 2010.
That figure doesn't include the $107 million in local, state and federal public money spent for improvements at the Horse Park and around the city before the horses got here; an additional $151 million in tax money was expedited to finish public works projects including the Blue Grass Airport expansion and the renovation and extension of Newtown Pike.
Businesses put at least $70 million into the Games, too, including $32 million from title sponsor Alltech.
And it all played out on a worldwide stage that was broadcast on NBC, Universal Sports and Eurosport, elevating Kentucky's profile. The Fédération Equestre Internationale estimated that 170 million viewers watched on 66 television channels worldwide.
Seeking new challenges
"The Games confirmed Lexington's historic role as the world's horse capital, and they set us up for improving the brand," said Mayor Jim Gray, who was vice mayor at the time of the Games.
His predecessor, former Mayor Jim Newberry, had these words last week for the city in the future: "Lexington ought not be afraid of taking on some big challenges." The Games "had the entire community pulling together, and the vast majority of the effects will be with us for decades," Newberry said.
"Lexington was looked at in an entirely new light," said John Nicholson, director of the Kentucky Horse Park. "We're a very confident community now, because we showed the world what we can do. That confidence is an asset we have when we face challenges and have opportunities presented to us."
Jamie Link, who was chief executive of the 2010 World Equestrian Games Foundation, said that even though the Games might not have met all the original expectations, they were a huge success.
"The image that we portrayed may have really surprised some people," Link said. "It may be several years before some of the benefits are felt. But I hope it's not a once-in-a-lifetime event for Lexington and Kentucky."
The state had been building up to the Games for almost a decade. But the past few years saw a frenzy of construction.
And for many Lexing tonians, this might be the most visible change: the streetscape. The city poured tons of money and concrete into new sidewalks along Main Street and Limestone. Alone, the Oliver Lewis Way project, which extended Newtown Pike from Main Street to Versailles Road, included almost 20,000 tons of concrete, according to the city. Before the Games began, the city poured more than 21/2 acres' worth of new sidewalks along Limestone, Vine and Main streets, not including the Cheapside pavilion area. City workers planted 118 new shade trees to keep the new sidewalks cool.
Other major changes include the revitalization of Third Street and the city's struggling East End, and the addition of bike lanes on major thoroughfares.
"It made the city more walkable for people coming to Lexington," said Susan Straub, spokeswoman for Gray's office.
Many of the ripple effects are less visible but just as tangible.
In advance of the Games, a $40 million indoor arena was built at the Horse Park, and the existing outdoor stadium was enhanced with larger permanent seating, to the tune of $25 million. There also were less visible improvements to the park, including updated electrical wiring and water and sewer lines.
Nicholson, the Horse Park director, said last week that the new facilities attracted 14 new equestrian events that have had a combined economic impact of more than $44.2 million.
In coming weeks, state tourism officials are expected to release a new economic impact study of the park but, Nicholson said, there is no doubt Kentucky has become the acknowledged "go-to place" for horse-related events.
The National Horse Show announced in February that it would move from New York to the park's Alltech Indoor Arena. That high-profile show, Nov. 2 to 6, leads the pack, but there are others, including the National Vaulting Championships in 2012.
Dennis Johnston of the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau said the park has bid on the 2015 International Congress of Therapeutic Riding. It also is negotiating for at least two other big shows and several organizations that might move their headquarters to Kentucky; he declined to name those events or groups.
Recession stunted Games
Nicholson said other ripples from the Games have yet to reach shore; he thinks a shift is under way in the sport-horse breeding industry that could have long-term economic benefits.
"What I would love to see measured is the people who have moved here and moved equine operations here," he said.
The 2008 global economic downturn might have slowed that shift. Two top dealers in horse farms advertised prominently during the Games. But neither Arnold Kirkpatrick nor Bill Justice could recall selling a property to sport-horse interests since then.
"We generated one offer that never came to fruition from an Australian group," said Justice, who had a booth in the trade show with glossy photos of gorgeous Bluegrass farms. "We still have contacts with several potential people but no actual sales from WEG."
Still, he said, he's glad he did it.
"We need to expose our inventory to some new people. We were hoping to get Europeans and South Americans that we haven't reached before," Justice said
Kirkpatrick, who was marketing a farm right in the middle of the park, said he had a lot of people looking, just nobody buying.
"The Games had already resulted in a number of sales here. And there's no doubt in my mind there will be other sales as a result of the Games," he said.
Interest in the area began building when the Games were awarded in 2005 with great ceremony by then-Gov. Ernie Fletcher. (Fletcher could not be reached for comment.)
The non-profit Games Foundation was formed to run them and cultivate sponsors. In June 2006, Nicholasville feed-supplement company Alltech signed on as title sponsor for $10 million. Rolex, which sponsors an annual three-day eventing competition at the park, came in for $2 million.
But when the stock market crashed in fall 2008, corporate money dried up seemingly overnight.
"The economic situation was a major challenge for everyone and ultimately may have mitigated the full effect of the Games," said Link, the WEG Foundation leader. "We had to get more $100,000 and $250,000 sponsors. We weren't going to get those big deals anymore."
By 2009, as they entered the final stages of planning, he said, "it really created a sense of modifying the event." It became, he said, a question of "the must-haves versus the nice-to-haves."
New stables for the park were found to be unnecessary, and a hoped-for permanent on-site veterinary clinic was dropped.
The foundation was prepared to sacrifice the printed stadium wrap as cosmetic, but Alltech insisted it stay and came up with the money to pay for it. "They stepped up and enhanced it," Link said. And the eye-catching wrap became a signature background image for the whole event.
Eventually, Alltech would pump in more than $30 million in money and workers to shore up the Games.
The company says it was more than satisfied with the results, which let it vastly expand its reach to consumers and potential customers. According to a case study it submitted to Admap magazine, Alltech projects its return on the investment to top $131 million. The company valued mass-market media exposure alone at $31 million.
And despite the recession, growth at the company has exploded: Alltech cited a 33 percent drop in employee turnover, and job applications doubled; sales of its equine-related products doubled and sales in the pet food sector quadrupled; and at least one bank offered Alltech better loan terms.
Not money for everybody
Despite the attention and the accolades, there have been some failures.
■ A hotel planned for the Horse Park, largely with the Games in mind, never broke ground after financing fell through. The same problem killed the CentrePointe condominium and hotel project downtown. Nicholson said reviving plans for the park hotel is the next big step for the state.
■ Legacy projects, such as the bike trail and a park honoring famous black jockey Isaac Murphy, are incomplete. But they will be finished, probably in the next year.
Steve Austin of the Bluegrass Community Foundation said last week that money has been appropriated for the final third of the trail, and planning soon will begin to link it from the North Lexington Family YMCA on Loudon Avenue to the Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden at Third Street and Midland Avenue.
"These are for us. The Games came and went," Austin said. "But we got something just because of the Games. We've got an area on the rise in the East End, and the Games helped put the spotlight on the area. The Legacy Trail is one of the best things to happen to Lexington in years."
■ The Legacy Games have been dropped by Alltech in favor of sponsoring the National Horse Show, a jumping competition, rather than developing a new event with more than one discipline.
But Alltech has announced that it will stick with the World Equestrian Games and is sponsoring the 2014 edition in Normandy, France.
Will they come back?
The future for horse sports in Kentucky and the United States looks bright, in part because of the Games' successes.
Equestrian Sport Productions in Wellington, Fla., announced in March 2010 that it is bidding for the 2018 Games, which have not yet been awarded.
That's a further sign of strong fan interest, said Link, the 2010 Games organizer.
At last year's Games, "dressage free-style was packed. The driving marathon was one of my favorites," he said. "Vaulting did surprisingly well. Reining's growing in popularity."
In the next few years, expect to hear more about a bid for 2018 or 2022.
"I think it'd be crazy for Kentucky to not bring the Games back," he said. "I think we can do it even better."
Nicholson, the Horse Park director, said he would embrace another bid. "I really feel we've not seen our last Equestrian Games," he said.
Even if the Games never come back, many people make the case that because they were here once, Lexington has changed for the better.
Downtown has been cleaned up, a blighted neighborhood is transforming, the travel corridors are easier to navigate. Many projects that had languished on drawing boards for decades were realized once they had the impetus of the Games. And these changes are winning recognition.
In years to come, newcomers will be drawn to the Bluegrass.
"They will come and say, 'We just like the feel of Lexington.' They won't know quite why that is, but they'll know it's there," former Mayor Newberry said. "Two years from now, if they come here, they won't say, 'It's because of the Games.'"
But, like so many things that happened just in the past few years, it probably will be.
Reach Janet Patton at (859) 231-3264 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3264.