Frankfort is at a turning point.
A number of articles in The State Journal and discussions online and elsewhere point to a city struggling with its identity. Although the relatively new “Kentucky Distilled” marketing program positions Frankfort as “the essence of everything that makes Kentucky special,” many natives and longtime residents don’t yet have a clear idea of what that entails or what changes are desirable. From bike trails at Leslie Morris Park to murals on historic buildings; two-way Main Street to a special Entertainment District; changes are proposed, argued over, voted on and argued over some more.
Frankfort has long been a “company town” and like many company towns, the “company” — in this case state government — not only dominates the local economy but also impacts the overall culture, rhythms and attitudes of the city. Being the seat of state government has provided a certain amount of stability for Frankfort over the years, but it’s hardly an engine of innovation and growth. To become a vibrant, attractive place to live, Frankfort’s future lies in developing an identity beyond that as Kentucky’s capital city.
I would like to focus on just one aspect of Frankfort’s future: tourism — particularly bourbon tourism. I assume just about everyone in Frankfort and Franklin County knows about Buffalo Trace Distillery and has some idea about the “bourbon renaissance” that’s going on in Kentucky. But not everyone appreciates the potential positive impact this trend could have for our city.
Buffalo Trace Distillery is on track to welcome some 250,000 guests this year from all over the world. That is 10 times the population of Frankfort and 100,000 more than attended the Kentucky Derby this year. Many of them are aware that Buffalo Trace is not on the “official” Kentucky Bourbon Trail, yet they make a point to visit. It is quite literally a world-famous destination.
Even other distilleries recommend the tours at Buffalo Trace. Most guests are not coming on tour buses but are traveling with friends and family (yes, families with children visit distilleries) and often ask about places to eat or stay or things to do while in Frankfort.
According to information from the Frankfort Area Chamber of Commerce, each visitor to Frankfort spends on average $94 per day, $144 if they stay overnight. If just a third of the visitors to Buffalo Trace stayed in Frankfort overnight rather than traveling to Lexington or Louisville, that would be $12 million coming into the local economy. If there were more activities, attractions and entertainment available, those numbers would increase.
Frankfort would do well to embrace its potential as a tourist destination and create services and experiences to bring these visitors into town. Come for the distillery and stay for the ... history? Food? Entertainment? Hospitality? Shopping? All of these and more are possible if we think beyond Frankfort as offering something only for us locals.
So, create the Entertainment District, open the bike trails, paint the murals, encourage the boutiques and brewpubs. As a local, you may never see or use them, but you'll enjoy the benefits of thousands of "outsiders" spending their discretionary dollars here.
Lee Cowherd is a lifelong resident of Frankfort and a retired educator and state employee. He may be contacted at LeeCowherd1@gmail.com.