How COVID, smaller Derby celebrations are impacting Louisville’s economy

BY STEVE CRUMP

Churchill Downs
Call it an annual rite of spring.
Magnetic events and magical moments connected to the Kentucky Derby Festival showcase our city’s character. However, in 2021, so many activities we regard as familiar now look different.
Sandra Frazier represents clients connected to Churchill Downs and the Derby through her company Tandem Public Relations-Marketing.
“I think that if you tell people anywhere around the country, that you’re from Louisville, they all have a Kentucky Derby story,” she said.
For Frazier, Louisville’s Kentucky Derby story continues to evolve.
Celebrating this first weekend in May at Churchill Downs now means facing new rules connected to COVID.
That results in challenging lessons validating trickle-down economics – $200 million is the region’s estimated take from Derby-related events.
Smaller crowds, not as many fancy hats and fewer mint juleps being served up.
“I haven’t heard of any businesses that are actively saying, you know, we’re going to go out to the track or we’re going to entertain,” Frazier said. ”But what I am hearing is, you know, we are able to prepare, we’re going to kind of take a step back. This isn’t a shock to the system, the way that it was last year.”
Beyond the large gatherings and festivities, the Run for the Roses remains a powerful economic driver.
While spending by out-of-town visitors make cash registers sing, another upside can be found.
Horse racing events in Kentucky’s largest city serve as a solid recruiting tool attracting new business and industry.
David James is the Metro Council President.
“I think it’s going to be very difficult because part of, you know, bringing people to the track from out of town, you know, business owners and, and showing them a taste of Louisville and taking them around and introducing the people all over the track, you know, that is not going to be able to happen,” James said.
The council president also said it’s not just the pandemic impacting the derby, but volatile protests following the death of Breonna Taylor have the potential of influencing perceptions, realities, and present-day attitudes.
James also told WAVE 3 News “It could cause people to not only re-imagine how they approach Derby because of COVID, but also how they approach Derby because of the possibility of civil unrest.”
Dan Hartlage is a partner with Guthrie Mays Public Relations.
He said, “We’ve been challenged in a lot of ways over the last year, uh, with the protesting and the, and the cause for racial justice and social justice.”
Hartlage sees public demonstrations as part of Louisville’s current identity, he also finds value in scaled-back events.
“We’re looking at getting the city moving again after COVID and a different and better way, I think, as a city, that’s what we’ve got to do, and this is a great opportunity to do that.”
Such an occasion, according to Frazier, could very well usher in the so-called new normal.
“And I think this is a great opportunity to take the signature event. That’s still going to be shown around the world and start to just say, you know, Louisville is still open for business. We’re not going anywhere and we’re still set to be this great American city,” Frazier said.
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