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Waterfront Park Needs Big Events Like Forecastle To Catch Eye of State Lawmakers

Waterfront Development Corporation's leader says big events like Forecastle Festival do more than just bring thousands of people to Waterfront Park in downtown Louisville—they also show state legislators that the park is worth supporting.

Forecastle is expected to attract nearly 60,000 people and have an estimated $16 million economic impact through spending at hotels, bars and restaurants, as well as earnings from sales tax and room tax, said David Karem, president of the Waterfront Development Corporation.

That figure is "something legislators need to hear about" as it sends a strong message that state funding for the Waterfront Park should be restored, Karem said.

When legislators finalized the 2014-2015 state budget last year, they left out a $420,800 lump of money that had previously been sent to the Waterfront Development Corporation every year to assist with operations.

Now, the Waterfront Development Corporation gets no money from the state budget.

"These events have a major economic impact for the commonwealth, and if you don't keep those events happy with high-quality maintenance, you may lose those events," Karem said.

The loss of those funds led Waterfront officials to cancel last year's annual Independence Day celebration, freeze salaries and cut back on some maintenance measures within the park, Karem said.

He said it's ironic funding was slashed, because "the usage of the park is increasing." That means the need for general maintenance is higher than ever.

Though officials have been able to keep up with the tasks of maintaining the 85-acre park, they have "had to call on some reserve" funding, Karem said.

He said the loss of state funding was an inexplicable surprise.

Karem said state legislators have apologized to him for the allocation "falling through the cracks," and others have told him "it shouldn't have happened."

State Sen. Gerald Neal and state Rep. Darryl Owen, both Democrats who represent the area of Jefferson County in which Waterfront Park lies, could not be reached for comment.

The lost funds have also created a difficult situation for the planned westward expansion of the park.

More funding, both from state and local government, will be needed when the next phase of the park's development begins, Karem said.

The proposed 22-acre expansion—from Ninth to 13th streets and Rowan Street to river's edge—will "stretch our maintenance staff even further," Karem said, and will likely require additional hires.

Here is a rendering of the proposed expansion to Waterfront Park:

At the moment, the Waterfront Development Corporation doesn't have any funds to begin the development, Karem said.

"Right now, it's a matter of getting money," he said.

The entire project cost is about $35 million, he said. It would be completed "incrementally," though, similar to other phases of the park.

The funding for the next phase is expected to come from a mix of both public and private funds, he said.

And the next phase of Waterfront Park is "the kind of project" that could benefit from a local option sales tax, Karem said.

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer has been an adamant supporter for a local option sales tax, which would allow local governments to temporarily raise the sales tax to pay for projects. Speaking in the Russell neighborhood earlier this month, Fischer said an expansion west for Waterfront Park is something he sees becoming a reality in five to 10 years.

"We've got a beautiful waterfront park east of here, we're going to have a beautiful waterfront park west of here," he said.

They're continuing to work on keeping the park operating on a thinned budget. The Waterfront Development Corporation's current budget is $2,092,000, said Cordell Lawrence, the group's CFO.

Louisville Metro's 2014-2015 budget is providing $1,615,200. The rest comes from event fees and leases.

Karem, a former state legislator, said funding for the park won't likely be taken up in the legislature's current short session.

But he said an "energized" Jefferson County delegation, with the help from local Metro Council members, could in 2016 be vital in reaffirming the state's financial commitment to Louisville's Waterfront Park.

"They need to help us keep the quality of the park up," he said.

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.

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