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Tourism generates billions in revenue

Downtown Lexington is constructing excitement as the entire region flourishes

By Kathie Stamps

Town Branch Commons is a 2.5-mile multimodal path and park system that will wind through downtown Lexington, following the historic path of Town Branch creek and ultimately connect a 22-mile series of pedestrian-only paths that extend out into scenic horse country.

All nine Kentucky tourism regions saw increases in economic impact in 2017, estimated all told at more than $15 billion statewide, with $1.57 billion of it in tax revenue. In Central Kentucky, which by the Kentucky Department of Tourism dubs the “Bluegrass, Horses, Bourbon and Boone” region, travel expenditures were up 2.1 percent to $2.04 billion in 2017.

The department announced a “Better in the Bluegrass” culinary tourism initiative in May to promote nine signature meals along the Kentucky State Parks Culinary Trail. Central Kentucky’s touted menu starts with beer cheese and Ale-8-One soft drink, followed by Limestone Bibb salad, spoonbread and Kentucky beef, with bourbon chocolate cake for dessert.

Food is big, and so is construction. Lexington and Mayor Jim Gray are savoring the sweet sound of heavy work being done. Gray and other city officials participated in a July 2018 groundbreaking ceremony downtown for the replacement and expansion of the Lexington Convention Center. The $241 million construction contract was awarded to Messer Construction Co. on June 28 by a unanimous vote from the board of directors of Lexington Center Corporation.

In keeping with the original 2014 design and vision of the project, details include a new exhibit hall 54 percent larger than the current Heritage Hall; with glass walls replacing today’s metal box look, it will be accessed from an elevated level on High Street instead of Main Street and able to accommodate 100,000. The convention center’s new ballroom will have a 40 percent increase in size. Around 8,500 upper arena seats in Rupp Arena will be converted to chairbacks. Four new UK Hospitality Clubs will accommodate 300 to 2,000 people, and new parking structures will have 504 spaces.

All phases of construction are expected to be complete by November 2021.

A groundbreaking ceremony for Town Branch Commons took place in July; the city’s new linear park is expected to be ready also in 2021 and will provide green space, recreational areas and cultural programming throughout downtown Lexington. At its western end, The Commons will be anchored by the signature Town Branch Park adjoining the convention center.

The three floors of the historic former Fayette County Courthouse have opened in stages for mixed-use office and event space. Funded by a public-private partnership partially financed through historic tax credits, Courthouse Square (its unofficial nickname) underwent a $32 million restoration. Limestone Hall opened in February 2018 and features the restored 119-year-old dome of the historic courthouse with two large spaces on either side for meetings, corporate events, wedding receptions and other special occasions. Kaelyn Query owns the name Limestone Hall; she leases the third floor of Courthouse Square and her company LexEffect Events + Management manages venue bookings and operations for the Limestone Hall.

VisitLEX moved into the first floor of Courthouse Square in June; the visitors center was slated to have new neighbors in early fall when restaurateur Ouita Michel’s Zim’s and Thirsty Fox bourbon bar open.

“Visitors and locals alike are invited to explore all that the city and surrounding region has to offer by starting their trip at our new visitors center,” said Mary Quinn Ramer, president of VisitLEX. “We are honored to be in such an historic and architecturally significant building in the heart of downtown Lexington, and we believe our interactive exhibits and rich media presence is the perfect modern touch to such an iconic landmark.“

VisitLEX markets Lexington and the Bluegrass region with a focus on the four brand pillars of equine, bourbon, beer and culinary tourism. In 2019 they will add two more: outdoor tourism, and arts and culture.

The James E. Pepper distillery opened for tours in July inside the Lexington Distillery District, while the Castle & Key distillery in Frankfort opened its doors in September.

There are lots of regional attractions outside Lexington.

Visitors to Frankfort can lift their noses to pick up the sweet smell of Buffalo Trace Distillery, the distillery is the oldest continuously operating distillery in the United States, located just a stone’s throw outside of charming downtown. The 46-year-old Frankfort Convention Center was demolished this winter and is slated to be replaced with a modern, energy-efficient facility.

A few minutes south of Lexington on I-75 is Madison County, home to historic Boone Tavern Hotel, which is quickly becoming a corporate retreat getaway. The opening of an event center in 2017 attracted groups as large as 150 people. The Frost Café opened in the spring of 2018 in Boone Tavern next to its famed dining room, featuring student crafts and a relaxing atmosphere. A new permit for outdoor alcohol sales now allows Boone Tavern to sell spirits in the garden outside the building.

A half hour southwest of Lexington is Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, a crafts and architecture paradise with 72 overnight rooms spread throughout 13 historic buildings. The Kentucky River borders the 3,000-acre property, popular among hikers and day trippers; it rang up 51,000 admission tickets last year and hosted 150 groups in the first half of 2018.

In Woodford County, the iconic “castle” on Versailles Road just west of Keeneland racetrack is reinventing itself as a major attraction. In July 2017 the building, now named Kentucky Castle, was purchased by “a small group of locals who felt like it was time for this Kentucky landmark to be opened up to the public so everyone in the state could enjoy and be proud of this special place,” said CEO and co-owner Matthew Dawson. The unique property has a renovated hotel, a restaurant open 7 days a week and a working farm with a truffle orchard, mushroom farm, chickens providing fresh eggs daily, two gardens for seasonal produce, and an apiary with bees producing honey for the restaurant.

“We want to represent our great state and its farming heritage in an authentic way and show people where their food comes from with our farm operations,” Dawson said. “We believe there’s no greater place on earth than this state we live in. People visiting who come for the horses, bourbon or other great Kentucky experiences should have an unforgettable place to stay with exceptional dining that matches the other great experiences they’re going to have while visiting.”

Visitors to Central Kentucky can sleep in a castle and head out for a full day of good food, bourbon, canoeing, museum visits and historic walking tours – all within an easy drive from Lexington.


Apiary Catering & Events




Base 110


Blue Grass Airport


Boone Tavern Event Center


Buffalo Trace Distillery (Frankfort)


Carrick House




Georgetown College Conference Center


Headley-Whitney Museum


Hilary J. Boone Center


Keeneland/Keene Barn


Kentucky Castle


Lexington Convention Center


Lexington Opera House


Limestone Hall


The Livery


Main on Main


Spindletop Hall


Venues of the Grand Reserve



Beaumont Inn (Harrodsburg)


Bluegrass Extended Stay


Boone Tavern (Berea)


Bright Leaf Golf Resort (Harrodsburg)


Campbell House Lexington, Curio Collection by Hilton


Capital Plaza Hotel (Frankfort)


Clarion Hotel Conference Center North


DoubleTree Suites by Hilton Hotel Lexington


Embassy Suites Lexington


Griffin Gate Marriott Resort & Spa


Hilton Lexington/Downtown


Hyatt Regency Lexington


Kentucky Castle


Lyndon House Bed & Breakfast


Ramada Lexington North Hotel & Conference Center


21c Museum Hotel



Arboretum State Botanical Garden of Kentucky


Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate


Aviation Museum of Kentucky


HPBC/Hopewell Museum


Horse Country Tours


Hummel Planetarium (Richmond)


James E. Pepper Distillery Tours




Kentucky Artisan Center at Berea


Kentucky Horse Park


Kentucky Theater


Mary Todd Lincoln House


Old Fort Harrod State Park (Harrodsburg)


Pioneer Playhouse (Danville)


Red Mile


Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill (Harrodsburg)


Yuko-En On the Elkhorn, the Official Kentucky-Japan Friendship Garden (Georgetown)