Lexington's new visitors center was packed full of people less than an hour after it opened Friday morning.
More than a hundred high school students on a scavenger hunt to find Big Lex — a blue painted horse that is the unofficial mascot of VisitLex's visitors center — crammed into the center before 10 a.m.
The 1,225 square foot space in Lexington's former Fayette County courthouse on Main Street officially opened its doors Friday. The tech-savvy center has interactive exhibits, information about the area's Bourbon, food and horse industry, and much more.
"We wanted to make it feel like you were in someone's living room," said Mary Quinn Ramer, president of VisitLex, the city's tourism and convention bureau.
Although smaller then the former center in The Square on Main Street, the new visitors center is more modern, using tablets and screens that can easily be changed to highlight different aspects of tourism in the greater Bluegrass area. A floor-to-ceiling wall of screens greets visitors as they walk into the center, which is on the ground floor of the courthouse on the corner of Upper and Main streets.
To help people find the new location, VisitLex has painted blue horse shoes on the Main Street sidewalk between the old and new visitors centers.
"We can change the screens to highlight different events that are going on in Lexington," Ramer said. "Our goal is to entice and inspire people. But using more technology we have more flexibility and can change our programming quickly."
An interactive exhibit on one wall allows people to smell bourbon from nearby bourbon distilleries. Next to it is a tablet that has various facts about Kentucky's booming bourbon industry.
Another exhibit allows people to email postcards they can design themselves. The center also has Lexington-centric socks, shirts, magnets, insulated cups and other merchandise.
The new center opens as Lexington continues to climb many travel and tourism "top ten" lists. Most recently, Southern Living ranked Lexington as one of the best cities in the South.
The visitors center is the latest tenant to move into the former Fayette County courthouse, which was renovated at a cost of more than $32 million. The renovation of the 1899 building recently won a state preservation award from the Kentucky Heritage Council.
Limestone Hall, an event space on the top floor, opened in February. The Breeders' Cup, which has offices on the third floor, moved in several months ago. VisitLex moved into its offices on the second floor in late April.
A restaurant by Chef Ouita Michel and a bourbon bar are expected to open sometime in August. They will share the ground floor with the visitors center. The restaurant will be on the side facing the Fifth Third Pavilion. The bourbon bar will face Short Street.
VisitLex will host a grand opening for the new visitors center at 10 a.m. on June 14. A second, larger grand opening for the entire building will be held later this summer when Michel's restaurant and the bar open, city officials have said.
The renovated courthouse — which has been closed to the public since 2012 — has been a big draw for locals and tourists alike, Ramer said.
"We have people come in all the time wanting tours," Ramer said. "We wanted to preserve everything we could but at the same time embrace the new."