The people who market tourism and conventions for Lexington think the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games will be a gift that keeps on giving. But here's the challenge: How do we take advantage of the many lessons learned from the Games?
David Lord, who will retire March 31 after 17 years as president of the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau, has been thinking a lot about that. His biggest lesson from WEG was the value of having shared community goals — and a firm deadline for accomplishing them.
"Can we embrace that, so the next time we're looking at something like a new farmers market location it doesn't take 20 years?" Lord said. "When it comes to something we're excited about like the Distillery District, does it have to take another 20 years?"
The Distillery District along Manchester Street is slowly turning long-abandoned distilleries and run-down industrial buildings into nightclubs and arts and entertainment venues. Lord, who studies these things, thinks the Distillery District has huge potential because it reflects Lexington's unique heritage and culture — and because it isn't so much designed for tourists as for local people.
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When such places become popular with locals, tourists like them better than artificial "tourist districts" because they are authentic. The same thing applies to impromptu restaurant districts popping up downtown, such as Cheapside and Jefferson Street.
"I love watching what is happening on Jefferson Street, which is not a planned development," Lord said. "The synergy of those little places playing off each other is wonderful."
Lord said Lexington should consider what other quality-of-life improvements could have similar "crossover" potential for locals and tourists alike. Those could include more events and festivals, such as the successful Spotlight Lexington concerts downtown during the Games. They also could include more passive recreation facilities like the Legacy and Town Branch trails.
Lexington could also do more to promote and develop the assets it already has, Lord said. Those include such things as the Woodsongs and Red Barn radio shows staged downtown weekly. Or things as simple as Central Kentucky's network of scenic country roads, which are becoming increasingly popular with cyclists who travel from all over the country to ride them.
That kind of thinking is important as tourism and conventions are big business. State officials estimated they were worth $1.66 billion in economic impact for Fayette County and $2.4 billion for the Bluegrass region in 2009.
Lord and his colleagues also have a few other ideas about how Lexington can build on the priceless international exposure and momentum from the Games:
■ Make Lexington more beautiful: Tourists may come primarily for horses, bourbon, history and the scenic beauty of our countryside, but when convention planners look at Lexington, "the look of downtown becomes the primary decision-making factor," said Dennis Johnston, who oversees convention sales for the bureau. "The downtown streetscape project we just finished is huge, but it's only a start."
■ Continue to improve the look of downtown: This involves a lot of big issues, from better architecture to historic preservation to public art. It also includes small things, from the artistic quality of temporary banners to cleaning up litter, an issue recently taken on by the new Keep Lexington Beautiful Commission.
■ Create more public-private partnerships: These are for everything from improving downtown to staging big events like WEG. "If we didn't have a strategic alliance with Alltech, the state would be having a lot of bake sales to pay off the Games," Lord said.
■ Capitalize on the $30 million worth of Games-related improvements at the Kentucky Horse Park: This can attract more and bigger equestrian events. The park has huge potential as an economic engine for the region.
■ Capitalize more on the horse industry and the ways it is changing: The Thoroughbred racing business is struggling, but the Horse Park and Lexington are well-positioned with the growing popularity of other equestrian sports.
"That could be a saving grace 20 years from now," Lord said. "And maybe one of these days there will be a place where (a visitor) can actually ride a horse."