Tourism Thriving in Central Kentucky

by Liz Carey

Central Kentucky is set to see the benefits of a state focus on tourism, officials said. In November, Gov. Andy Beshear announced the state had approved nine new tourism projects, including two in Central Kentucky. In Lexington, the state approved the Lexington Sporting Club, which is expected to generate a $25.4 million investment. In November, the Lexington-Fayette County Urban Council approved $1 million for infrastructure costs for the 5,000-plus seat stadium near the Athens-Boonesboro Road and I-75 interchange. The project includes a stadium and youth sports fields for soccer.



The Amsden bank building in downtown Versailles, built in 1890, now houses a coffee house, bourbon bar, retail, and wellness-related businesses.


In Hardin County, the state approved the Elizabethtown Courthouse Hotel, which is expected to generate an $8.2 million investment. That project will convert the former H.B. Fife Courthouse into a 25-room boutique hotel. Officials said the third floor, formerly the old courtroom and judge’s chambers, will be transformed into a restaurant and bar.

The projects were approved for funding through the Kentucky Development Incentive Program, which supports the development, rehabilitation, and expansion of tourism projects. Once approved, developers can recover up to 25 percent of a project’s development cost over a 10-year term through sales tax generated onsite.

Officials with the Kentucky Tourism Development Finance Authority said the nine projects approved in 2023 were the most granted final approval in a single year since the inventive program was created in 1996.

Incentives to support tourism have paid off for Kentucky in recent years. Officials said the state saw a nearly $13 billion economic impact from tourism in 2022, creating nearly 92,000 jobs.

Commissioner of Tourism Mike Mangeot said the investments promise to elevate the tourism draw of the state. “What we’re seeing is that the success and growth of our tourism industry is leading to investment in a multitude of projects,” Mangeot said. “It’s not just investment in distilleries, but in Keeneland, in airports, in hotels, and other attractions.”

Tourism, Mangeot said, drives business. The goal, he said, is to help communities across the state develop tourism projects, regardless of their size. The state’s investment in tourism has generated more jobs, more accommodations, and more attractions that bring in more travelers. “It helps broaden our appeal as a travel destination, and it all kind of collectively goes into that [tourism] pot, if you will,” he said. “Our ultimate goal is to be able to provide great, affordable, memorable, and authentic travel experiences here in Kentucky.”

Creating those experiences translates into real dollars. In 2022, 75.9 million travelers visited Kentucky, spending $8.9 billion, according to the journal “Tourism Economics.” Tourism generated nearly $1 billion in state and local taxes, the equivalent of a $536 tax savings for every household in the state. Officials said that visitors to the state were at 103 percent of 2019 volumes and that visitor spending was 112 percent of 2019 amounts.

“Tourism is essential to Kentucky, and that is why I have made it a priority to support this industry. It’s thrilling to see our hard work pay off in such a historic way,” Beshear said. “From horse country and outdoor adventure to history, arts, culture, and our world-famous bourbon, Kentucky has a little something for every traveler — but what really sets us apart is the hospitality and kindness of the hardworking Kentuckians in this industry.”



Coolmore at Ashford Stud in Woodford County is a popular destination for equine enthusiasts.

The impact of tourism in Fayette County is looking up, said Mary Quinn Ramer, President of VisitLEX. She said that the coming years should be good for tourism in the area. “Obviously, we’re really excited about the soccer stadium and what that is going to do,” she said. “We’re going to be in a position to [host] a lot more tournaments, which is a great win for our city. Some of these tournaments can bring in up to 100 teams, and they are playing in months like November and February when we don’t necessarily have peak demand for hotels.”

She also said that convention bookings are up for this year and next. “We are fully recovered from the pandemic, which is fantastic,” she said. “Our 2024 convention outlook is ahead of pace for where we were pre-pandemic. We’ve been fortunate compared to a number of other cities around the country that our convention business has come back. Obviously, that speaks to our brand new convention center, which has been a huge win. We’ve really leveled up our offerings in the meeting and convention space.”

The city is also planning programming to observe its 250th birthday next year, which will kick off in 2025. “There’s going to be a lot of opportunity to celebrate and also reflect on the city’s history, and I hope that locals are really excited about it. I also hope we have a couple of events that will entice folks from out of town,” she said.

In Woodford County, Visit Woodford Executive Director Emily Downey said economic development and tourism go hand-in-hand. Focusing on bringing in tourism helps businesses during slow months. Likewise, working with economic development efforts helps give tourists a reason to visit the county.



Tourism, including bourbon-related tourism at distilleries such as Castle & Key Distillery in Woodford County, helps create jobs and spur investments across the state, officials say.

New tourism initiatives in Woodford County include focusing on Woodford County as the birthplace of bourbon, partnering with other counties to establish bicycling trails, and educating travelers in larger markets like Columbus, Indianapolis, Charlotte, and St. Louis about the area’s charms.

“Our number one goal is to have everyone come and have a great time in Woodford County,” she said. “We want them to discover the most charming county they’ve never heard of. Our focus is to tell our story and build our brand. It’s never about a number, but about providing an authentic experience that will entice people to return.”