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Louisville mayor spent $180,000 to entertain business leaders during Derby

J. Tyler Franklin

Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg continued the tradition of inviting business executives to the Kentucky Derby in the hopes of getting them to invest in the River City. This year, the festivities cost taxpayers roughly $180,000.

The price tag includes hotel rooms, transportation and food and beverages for a handful of executives from Bezos Academy, LinkedIn and other companies. Tickets to the Derby at Churchill Downs were the largest single expense, coming out to just over $80,000.

Greenberg’s spokesperson Kevin Trager said in a statement that the Derby allows the city’s economic development team to showcase “the best of Louisville.”

“We are confident that after seeing all our city has to offer and meeting members of our amazing community this unique economic development opportunity will lead to the continued growth and strengthening of our economy,” Trager said last week.

Greenberg and his wife also hosted a brunch on Derby Day attended by several hundred people, according to Trager. The invite list was a who’s who of community leaders and city officials including Metro Council members, members of the Brown and Bingham families and “mayor’s office staff, spouses, children, family members, and friends,” records show. Greenberg spent $15,748 on food from Mayan Cafe and $3,417 on flowers, napkins and linens.

The overall cost of Greenberg’s Derby hosting was higher than last year, when Mayor Greg Fischer spent around $140,000.

The guest list

Unlike Fischer, Greenberg publicly released his guest list ahead of Kentucky’s premier horse racing event. The Fischer administration refused to identify his Derby guests throughout his 12-year term, arguing it would have a negative impact on the city’s ability to recruit new companies. Metro Council voted in 2018 to allow the Louisville mayor to keep their Derby guests secret.

On May 2, Greenberg announced seven executives across different industries accepted Louisville’s Derby invite. Three guests had donated to his recent primary and general election campaigns.

Campaign finance records showed Valerie Bruce, the general manager of BBC Studios - Los Angeles, contributed $4,000 to Greenberg’s campaigns. Dan Roth, who’s the vice president and editor-in-chief of Linkedin, gave $3,000 to Greenberg between his two campaigns. Roth’s wife Lisa, who was also one of Greenberg’s guests, donated $4,000. Dan Roth grew up in Louisville and, along with his siblings, recently made a donation to the renovation project at the Trager Family Jewish Community Center.

Other executives who attended Derby as Greenberg’s guests were:

  • Mike George, President of Bezos Academy, and spouse Beth
  • Rob Mills, Vice President of Unscripted and Alternative Entertainment for Walt Disney Television
  • Donna Orender, CEO of Orender Unlimited and former president of the WNBA, and spouse M.G.
  • T.J. Rodgers, founder of Cypress Semiconductor Corporation, and spouse Valeta
  • Ryan Roslansky, CEO of LinkedIn, and spouse Leigh

Greeberg’s office did not say why they chose to invite these guests, but many work in industries that have become a priority for local and state leaders.

For example, Fischer announced last December that the long-vacant Louisville Gardens building downtown would be renovated into soundstages for film, television, music and digital production. The developers, River City Entertainment Group, LLC, are hoping to get incentives from the state to help cover some construction costs. Greenberg's office said Thursday cleanup work at the Gardens will begin next month.

In 2021, the Kentucky General Assembly revived the state’s film tax credit program in order to incentivize film companies to shoot here. The BBC Studios’ L.A. arm has produced shows like “Dancing with the Stars” and “Top Gear America.” Mills, meanwhile, oversees the creation and production of reality television for the Disney, ABC and Hulu brands.

Mike George, president of Bezos Academy, was in town in March to announce its first tuition-free preschool in Kentucky. Expected to open in 2025, the Montessori-style pre-Kindergarten program will be located adjacent to Jefferson Green and Jefferson’s Landing, affordable housing developments in Okolona.

While on the campaign trail, Greenberg promised to make universal access to preschool a reality in Louisville.

Donna Orender’s appearance on Greeberg’s Derby guest list could be related to the long-standing efforts by fans and deep-pocketed community leaders to bring a professional basketball team to Louisville. The city hasn’t had a professional basketball team since the Kentucky Colonels folded in the mid-1970s.

There’s no publicly available information about plans LinkedIn might have for Louisville or city efforts to attract the company, and Trager did not immediately respond to a question about this.

It wouldn’t be Greenberg’s first foray into the tech world: LEO Weekly obtained emails in February showing his administration is trying to lure YouTube creators Dude Perfect to locate a proposed $100 million theme park here.

Roberto Roldan is the City Politics and Government Reporter for WFPL. Email Roberto at rroldan@lpm.org.

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