Gains from Games mixed in Shelby

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By Ryan Conley

They came, but did they stay and play?

Significant numbers of visitors to the recent Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games found their way to Shelby County, although their impact to the economy wasn’t universally felt, local officials and merchants say.

The international festival, which concluded its 10-day run Oct. 10, was predicted to produce a $167 million economic impact to Kentucky, with some of those dollars spilling over into communities such as Shelby County.

More than 500,000 people attended the games, according to early analysis, and it’s clear some of those folks took advantage of local offerings, including tours coordinated by the Shelbyville/Shelby County Visitors Bureau.

“The impact was fantastic,” Shelby County tourism director Katie Fussenegger said. “We had families from Scotland, Netherlands, Australia – there were tons of people from Australia – China and Great Britain.”

The tourism office conducted 10 tours during the general time period of WEG, featuring groups ranging in size between 20 and 112 people. Included were international media members from the United Kingdom, Japan, Germany and Canada, Fussenegger said. Through mid-October, 3,406 visitors have utilized tourism office tours this year, she said, bettering the entire 2009 total of 2,632 visitors.

Some of the tourists frequented downtown shops, including floral gift shop Weeds and Things. Owner Chris Pennington estimated he had 200 unique international visitors related to the games.

“We had great sales,” Pennington said. “We sold a lot of horse things, and a lot of things that said ‘Shelbyville.’ We were anticipating a lot of activity, and we benefited from it.”

Downtown restaurant Bell House also saw an increase in traffic, co-owner Sue Andriot said.

The eatery, which is open Monday through Friday for lunch, also expanded its normal Friday-Saturday evening schedule to include Thursdays during the Games. The decision paid dividends with some of its biggest crowds, she said.

“We had several groups come from the hotels,” said Andriot, who owns Bell House with her husband, Bob. “Some of them were very complimentary. They said they couldn’t find good food in Lexington and wished they would have found us sooner.”

But others anticipating an uptick in revenue were disappointed.

Charlene Nation, who is the chairman of the Shelbyville Merchants of Retail Trade, said SMART members hadn’t met since the games ended, but she said she feels many would report only average activity.

“I don’t think there was significant impact on our downtown business,” said Nation, who operates Avon for Guys and Dolls. “I saw nothing in my store, but my clients are local, and I didn’t expect people from other countries to buy Avon products. That would have been stretching things too far.”

Officials at the Wakefield-Scearce Galleries say they had a brief sales spike when a group of Australians shopped aggressively at the antiques and fine art venue but saw little other action.

“We were hopeful, but it was disappointing,” visual coordinator Patti Wilson said. “We saw people from all over Europe but, in terms of dollars spent, not much.”

Wilson said it was difficult to gauge overall activity at the Science Hill complex, which houses other retail shops and a restaurant, because of the advent of the holiday season. She said foot traffic traditionally increases this time of the year in anticipation of the complex’s extensive holiday decorating and the Nov. 3 opening of The Yule Shop.

“Everything in this huge building is either moved or replaced,” she said. “People stop by these weeks to see how things have changed.”

Fussenegger said local hotels did well but could have been busier but for competition from Louisville lodging facilities.

“They kept their prices low,” she said. “But our hotels did well. I think they will pick up a thirteenth month of revenue.”

More than $107 million in government money was spent on improvements to the Kentucky Horse Park, according to an analysis by The Herald-Leader. WEG's total attendance was 507,022, but that figure included volunteers, media members and 62,000 students who attended through a special program, the paper reported.