Tuesday, May 08, 2001

Speedway revs up Ky. tourism

Aquarium, other destinations lure dollars

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        COVINGTON — Led by the Newport Aquarium and the Kentucky Speedway, Northern Kentucky was a tourism hot spot in 2000.

        Spending by tourists in the 13-county region jumped 11.8 percent last year to nearly $727 million, the largest increase of any part of the state, according to figures released Monday by Gov. Paul Patton and the Tourism Development Cabinet.

        But in 2000, statewide, tourism spending had its largest increase in seven years — 7.6 percent — at $8.8 billion, $624 million more than in 1999.

        Mr. Patton and Tourism Development Cabinet Sec retary Ann Latta pointed directly to the speedway, which opened last year, and the 3-year-old aquarium as sparks for the state's tourism industry.

        Gallatin County, had a 681 percent rise in tourism spending last year to $23 million, thanks almost solely to the $100 million speedway in Sparta, Mr. Patton said. The auto racetrack, developed by Jerry Carroll of Fort Mitchell, who used to own the Turfway Park thoroughbred horse track in Florence, attracted 289,000 people in 2000.

25 cents on the dollar
               Both projects benefitted from the Tourism Development Act, a bill passed by the Kentucky General Assembly in 1996 that pro vides financial incentives to tourism projects.

        “It's obvious that the innovative programs we've introduced to obtain more tourism development are taking effect and that more people are taking advantage of what the commonwealth has to offer as a tourist destination,” Mr. Patton said Monday.

        The Tourism Development Act allows developers to receive a tax rebate of 25 cents of every dollar spent at a tourist attraction for up to 10 years.

        House Majority Caucus Chairman Jim Callahan, D-Wilder, who co-sponsored the bill, called the legislation “the best bill we've ever passed for the tourism industry in Kentucky.”

        “The best thing about the act is that a (tourist attraction) has to produce to get the money,” Mr. Callahan said. “So the more people they bring in, the more money they get.”

Levee project
               Newport expects to attract even more tourists this fall when the $210 million Newport on the Levee project opens. It will include an IMAX theater, a multiscreen cinema complex, a variety of stores and restaurants, night spots and a Hilton Hotel.

        The Levee developers, who have been approved for the incentives under the tourism act, will use the tax rebate to pay for a parking garage, Mr. Callahan said.

        Newport City Manager Phil Ciafardini said the Le vee is expected to attract 5 million to 6 million people a year and generate about $9 million in new tax money for the city over five years.

        “We have a lot of places we can spend the money,” Mr. Ciafardini said. “On streets, on sidewalks, on other infrastructure where work is needed.

        “But what we want to emphasize is these economic development projects not only benefit the whole region but also benefit the people of Newport,” he said.

Boone Co. tops
               Boone County led Northern Kentucky in tourism spending with nearly $295 million and was the third highest tourism gainer, behind only Jefferson County (Louisville) and Fayette County (Lexington).

        That figure was buoyed by visitors to Turfway Park and to the many hotels located along Interstate 75, said Tom Caradonio, president and chief executive of the Northern Kentucky Convention and Visitors Bureau in Covington.

        But local tourism officials said things may cool off with the economy when similar figures are released next year.

        Mr. Caradonio said the sagging economy and the lingering effects of the Comair pilots strike will likely hurt the overall tourism dollars spent here this year.

        “With all that going on, it's going to be a stretch to reach the same numbers for this year,” he said. “I'm looking forward to the Newport on the Levee opening in fall. I wish it were opening today.”

        The increase in tourism spending hasn't translated to more business for Commonwealth Hotels, said Dan Fay, president of the Covington-based company.

        “We've seen a lot of increase in the (hotel) supply in Northern Kentucky,” Mr. Fay said. “And we do a lot of corporate travel, and with the economy a lot of companies are cutting back.

        “You would think that with the tourism up, business for the hotel industry would be good. But right now, it's really not,” said Mr. Fay.

        Among the hotels the company operates are the Marriott and the Embassy Suites on the Covington riverfront and the Commonwealth Hilton in Florence. Mr. Fay did not divulge sales figures or occupancy rates for any of the company's hotels.

        Other state tourism highlights include:

        • More than 163,000 Kentucky residents work in the tourism industry, including 16,259 in the 13-county Northern Kentucky region, which includes Boone, Kenton, Campbell, Pen dleton, Gallatin, Grant, Bracken, Fleming, Carroll, Lewis, Mason, Owen and Robertson counties.

        • The tourism industry generated $917 million in state and local taxes.

        • For the first time, tourism spending in the Lexington and Louisville regions topped $1 billion.


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