Lexington businesses reaping dollars with big basketball events in town

ctruman@herald-leader.comMarch 21, 2014 

In Lexington this weekend, the final chapter of basketball season is marked with the Sweet Sixteen boys' state tournament at Rupp Arena and the women's NCAA regional at the University of Kentucky's Memorial Coliseum. Nearby businesses are buzzing, and not just because of basketball.

Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau president Jim Browder said that UK baseball has a series with No. 1 South Carolina through Sunday, and the Kentucky Youth Soccer Region 2 challenge cup is at Masterson Station Park and Lafayette, Tates Creek and Henry Clay high school fields.

Meanwhile, all the fans must be housed, fed and entertained, guaranteeing happy businesses.

The Hyatt Regency hotel next to Rupp Arena has filled its 366 rooms, and it will fill them again this weekend, when the Southeast Tourism Society checks in, Hyatt manager Larry Bell said.

"It's a good time of the year," Bell said. For the Sweet Sixteen, "We have some of the same guests every year. This is a family vacation for many of our guests. This is the capper of the basketball season for us."

It's tough to tell how much money that tournament alone brings into town. Older formulas relied on a multiplier effect to arrive at how many times a tourist dollar circulated in town, but the convention and visitors bureau is now working with the UK Gatton College of Business to help build a convention calculator that selects a more detailed and complex system of figures.

At its busiest times, the streetside bureau office at 401 West Main Street sees about 500 visitors a day, Browder said.

The benefit of that location across the street from the Rupp Arena/Hyatt/Lexington Convention Center complex is that "we can immediately redirect people to restaurants and shops. They don't have to get into their car."

Lexington Mayor Jim Gray has often said that one of downtown's challenges is getting people who come to events at Rupp Arena and nearby to visit downtown businesses before and after those events.

Joe Bologna's, the venerable pizza, pasta and breadsticks restaurant at 120 West Maxwell Street, sees bursts of business before and after Sweet Sixteen games, owner Joe Bologna said.

"It keeps us pretty busy between games," he said.

Rob Perez, an owner of Saul Good, at 123 North Broadway, just a few blocks from Rupp, said the restaurant "is very popular in between 3:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., when one session is going and one session is coming."

Menu favorites vary, he said, between those who go for the basic burger and those willing to spend more to celebrate victory. Saul Good's broad menu covers all of them, Perez said.

"The Sweet Sixteen has helped us this week absolutely," Perez said. "We're probably 35 percent better than a normal week, one without any other activity. ... We're staffing for it."

Around Memorial Coliseum, on UK's campus, the coffee shop Coffea (pronounced coffee-a) has not seen a lot of extra traffic so far, but it's ready for when the women's NCAA tournament begins Saturday. The UK women meet Wright State at 11 a.m.

"We're poised and ready for it at this point," said Bill Lee, who owns the shop with his brother. "We're not going to run out of coffee."

Cheryl Truman: (859) 231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman.

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