For the past five years, civic leaders have heralded the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to showcase Lexington as an ideal place to live, work and visit.
But now — with the Games set to begin in 19 months — many of the projects aimed at making the city look its best are behind schedule, stalled or off the list altogether.
Officials say the tanking economy is a major problem for new projects and fund-raising. But experts think that missing the opportunities offered by the Games could have an even greater economic cost in the long run.
"It's pretty important to put your best foot forward," said Scott Kelley, director of the University of Kentucky Sports Marketing Academy. He cites two cities, Atlanta and Indianapolis, that have used major sporting events to redesign and revitalize their downtowns. Atlanta, in particular, used the 1996 Olympics to create a park that remains a centerpiece for the city.
At the Kentucky Horse Park, where the Games will take place, the major improvements are on time and on budget. But part of the economic impact of the Games — by organizers' estimates close to $150 million — is based on luring people downtown to spend money.
And that's where progress is much, much slower:
■ The Streetscape Beautification Program — a $51 million project that would build sidewalks, bury utility lines and create more greenspace along all of downtown's major streets — hasn't come off the drawing board.
Only half the design is completed for one street, Limestone, and work will begin on South Limestone later this year. Although the main gathering point for visitors will be the Courthouse Plaza on North Limestone, it's doubtful that the project will get that far by 2010.
"I can't say whether it will be done or can be done," said Mike Webb, director of public works. He said 2010 "was the target date and we are working toward that ... but everything has to continue to go well."
Work has been most affected by the complications of coordinating with various utility companies, he said.
■ Another planned project involved posting signs all over downtown to help visitors find their way around Lexington. Although nearly $500,000 in bond money was included in the 2008 and 2009 budgets for the new signs, the "Wayfinding project" is on hold because of budget woes.
"We will make decisions about funding the Wayfinding project as part of the '09-'10 budget," said Susan Straub, spokeswoman for Mayor Jim Newberry. "Wayfinding sign age is important, but so are other needs. Our tight budget demands that we re-evaluate virtually all capital projects, including Wayfinding."
Wayfinding has been among the top 10 things the city needs to accomplish, said David Lord, director of the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau. "If ever there was a time to make this happen, this would be it," Lord said.
■ The city is planning a two-week festival downtown called Spotlight Lexington, to be paid entirely out of sponsorships. Penny Ebel, the city's director of special events, said the city had hoped to raise between $800,000 and $1 million for the festival, which would feature artists and performers during the day and at night. That money would also pay for banners and building a stage in the courthouse plaza.
"But we're not going to go into debt," Ebel said. "The economy may make it difficult to raise what we once thought we'd be able to raise."
Fund-raising for the project has not yet begun.
■ Completion of a major road project, the Newtown Pike extension, also is up in the air. A section between Main Street and Versailles Road was scheduled to be finished before the Games to help ease traffic around downtown. It is supposed to cost $9.1 million.
"We have as good a shot of making it as not," said Andrew Grunwald, a project engineer for the city. Complicating factors include funding and the acquisition of rights-of-way.
■ A year ago, developers said they were building the CentrePointe hotel and condominium project in time for the World Games. Although the city block between Main and Vine (just across from the Courthouse Plaza) has been cleared, developer Dudley Webb now says that only the exterior will be finished by 2010, with some retail space open.
For now, the razed block sits empty.
In his State of the Merged Government Address last month, Newberry said it will be a challenge for the city to marshal its resources and talent to take full advantage of the Games.
"But the mayor also believes we can meet that challenge, and he is confident we will," Straub said.
The city has requested nearly $500 million from the federal stimulus package, and some WEG projects are included. But it's not clear how much — if any — funding the city will get.
Part of trail to be done
Some projects might be partly finished for the Games. The Legacy Trail was envisioned as a hike-and-bike trail to connect the Kentucky Horse Park to downtown. Project manager Keith Lovan said the $3 million section between the Horse Park and Coldstream Research Campus is on time and has secured funding.
It's not clear about the next section, which would connect Coldstream to the Northside YMCA through property mostly owned by Lexmark.
The Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden, a park on Third Street dedicated to an African-American jockey who won the Kentucky Derby three times, is finishing a lengthy land acquisition process with the state and the city.
David Cozart, president of the independent Isaac Murphy board, said it has just started raising money for the park's $2 million cost, but he's still confident it will be finished by 2010.
"Worst-case scenario," he said, the garden would be done in phases, "so it could still be an attraction for the Games."
Other projects tied to the Games are further along, and officials say they should be on target for 2010.
Blue Grass Airport officials say they are on schedule to lengthen and relocate the airport's 3,500-foot general aviation runway so it will no longer intersect with the airport's main 7,000-foot runway.
The smaller runway is the one from which Comair Flight 5191 mistakenly departed before crashing in August 2006. The longer general aviation runway would accommodate an increase in private airplanes expected for the Games. Design work is to start this summer; construction should be finished shortly before the Games.
Airport spokesman David Wescott said that most of the $27 million funding has been received, although the status of $9 million from the federal government is unclear. However, the airport recently floated an $80 million revenue bond, which could cover the costs of the runway until federal funding is allocated.
Horse Park on track
Out at the Kentucky Horse Park, the facilities planned for the World Games are well under way. The $49 million indoor arena will open in June, and it already is booked for 26 weeks preceding the big event.
The $24 million outdoor stadium is running a little closer to deadline because it has to be ready to host the Rolex Three-Day Event in April. A section of 7,000 covered seats is almost complete, along with a new reviewing stand. (More temporary seating will be added later).
"We're very happy with how this is going," Horse Park director John Nicholson said.
Part of a $10.3 million road project has already created a roundabout at the front of the Horse Park. And the renovation of Nina Bonnie Boulevard, which bisects the park behind the stadium, is supposed to start in the next few months.
The widening and beautification of Newtown Pike between Ironworks Pike and Interstate 75 also is finished, and officials say it makes for a safer and more attractive route to the Horse Park.
Also nearly finished is an addition to the Horse Park Museum to house a new permanent exhibit on the Arab horse, along with an Arab exhibit specially planned for the Games.
The biggest bump at the Horse Park came when plans to build a luxury hotel were scuttled because of a lack of financing.
A 'difficult' climate
Nicholson said he's not worried that the city appears to be lagging on its plans for the Games.
"I have confidence that at the end of the day, the city will put on a spectacular event," he said. "But there's no doubt the sponsorship climate is difficult right now."
Alltech, the naming sponsor of the Games, which put up $10 million in sponsorship, is moving ahead with plans for its arts festival and all the activities associated with the Games, said Kelly Welker, the company's liaison. She would not comment on what effect the economic downturn would have on those plans.
"We have very lofty goals and we plan on achieving them through the festival and the Games," she said.
Jamie Link, the new chief executive officer of the World Games Foundation, isn't bothered by delays on Lexington projects. He sees the Games as a statewide event, not just something that will benefit the city of Lexington.
"Regardless of what gets done, there's going to be lots to see and do," he said.
But failure to use the Games as an impetus for big and much-needed changes will be a loss, said Steve Austin, director of the Legacy Center at the Bluegrass Community Foundation, which was set up to work with the city on the Legacy Trail and Third Street revitalization.
"The magic of the Games was the sense of urgency that imposed deadlines and was motivating everyone," Austin said. "If we're not able to meet these deadlines, what will ensure we keep that momentum?"
Kentucky Horse Park
A $49 million indoor arena is scheduled to open in June; a $24 million outdoor stadium is to be finished by April; work on $10.3 million in road projects is under way.
Blue Grass Airport runway relocation
The $27 million project is on schedule, the airport says.
A $3 million section of trail from the Kentucky Horse Park to Coldstream Research Campus on Newtown Pike is on schedule to be finished by spring 2010. Status of the trail from Coldstream to downtown is uncertain.
Streetscape Beautification Program
A $51 million project to rebuild sidewalks, bury utility lines and create greenspace along major streets is still on the drawing board.
Plans for new street signs to help visitors get around town have been taken off the table.
Officials say there is a 50-50 chance of finishing the Newtown extension between Main Street and Versailles Road by 2010. A project to widen and beautify Newtown between I-75 and Ironworks Pike has been finished.