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What the 2-Year Closing of Louisville's Convention Center Could Mean for Downtown

Each year, farmers in Louisville for the annual Farm Machinery Show spend a lot of money at Sully's Saloon and Restaurant on Fourth Street, manager Benjamin Yates said. The same thing happens throughout the year during events at the Kentucky International Convention Center in downtown Louisville.

Businesses in the vicinity "thrive" off the foot-traffic from the conventions—they're "things we map our year around," Yates said.

But that'll change when the convention center shuts down for two years beginning in August 2016 for nearly $180 million in renovations, Yates said.

"The two years that they're going to shut the convention center down is going to hurt downtown Louisville, as a whole," he said.

The convention center has a yearly economic impact of about $60 million, said Rip Rippetoe, the president and chief executive of the Kentucky State Fair Board, which operates the convention center. Every year, about 180 events are held at the convention center, located at 221 South Fourth Street.

He wouldn't speculate as to what the economic loss would be to the downtown area during the shut down.

"We don't know what kind of impact that will have," he said. "We hope we can mitigate any kind of challenges of losing the building for that two-year period and be able to supplement that with a different kind of business."

Local officials are working to secure locations in the area for events that would otherwise visit the convention center, he said.

The Yum! Center, the fairgrounds and hotels can accommodate certain events, he said.

"The idea and the goal is to be able to have the same number of people come (to Louisville ) for those two years," he said.

Rebecca Matheny, executive director of the Louisville Downtown Partnership, said she is "hopeful" the closing of the convention center for two years won't have a noticeably negative impact on the downtown area.

"I think what we are really seeing in downtown in the last several years is a really big increase in just general vibrancy," she said. "We have a lot of leisure travelers."

And locally, she said people are beginning to think more positively "about coming downtown, being downtown and just experiencing the city."

Rippetoe wouldn't say specifically which conventions won't be coming to Louisville during the two-year shut down.

But he said it's important to think long-term about the renovations.

More events are expected to schedule with the convention center once it reopens in summer 2018, he said.

"We've already booked two events because we announced we were doing the renovations," he said. "The shows we have talked to are excited that they're going to have new product with enhanced technology."

The added economic impact once the convention center reopens is expected to be about $20-$30 million, he said.

Rippetoe said extensive discussions were held about possibility keeping the convention center open during the renovation, but none of the options were feasible.

"It just added months to the project and higher costs," he said.

The expansion, he said, looks to add more than 200,000 square feet of meeting and ballroom space and increase "market potential" by nearly 25 percent.

Funding for the expansion will come via $56 million in state bonds to be paid off from the state’s general fund, $41.8 million in bonds from the Louisville convention bureau board to be paid off from hotel room tax, $60 million from the convention agency’s refinancing of outstanding bond debt and about $20 million in annual contributions from the convention agency, according to a report by the Courier-Journal.

As for Yates at Sully's, he said the two year shut down "will hurt." To ease the pain, the bar and restaurant will likely look for thirsty locals to fill the stools tourists have been drinking on for years.

"We're gong to have to find a way to get locals out more so than we do now," he said. "Maybe get some more events down here, random events during the week and weekends to really give them an incentive to come downtown."

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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