A friend of mine from Nashville visited me not long ago. After touring her around some of Louisville’s major tourist destinations, she said something that stuck with me: “Louisville doesn’t seem to have a sense of itself as a tourist destination.”
It gave me pause. I knew what she meant, coming from our home state of Tennessee where Memphis and Nashville have unmistakable tourist districts. The essential tourist pitch in those cities is reinforced by a plethora of glowing neon signs, restaurants, shops and venues, all screaming: “We are blues music!” “We are country music!”
Louisville has unmistakable historical and cultural identities and destinations too, but maybe our built environment doesn’t tie them together enough to coalesce memorably in the visitors’ mind.
Enter a new plan unveiled this month by the Louisville Downtown Development Corporation for the “Louisville Downtown Bourbon District.”
Fully realized, it would help tourists like my friend grasp what locals have known for years: Louisville and Kentucky are about bourbon.
Visitors would learn about the bourbon industry through historic signs, landmark features and other elements carefully placed along Main Street roughly from 10th Street to Hancock Street and along Fourth Street from its intersection at Main to Broadway. It would be like an outdoor museum experience along those two corridors.
“The plans are for a lot of interpretive elements, a lot of education, a lot of experiences using all five senses to tell that story of bourbon,” said Tricia McClellan, a landscape architect with Rundell Ernstberger Associates, the firm which prepared the plan.
The district would be anchored by three distillery projects currently underway. Michter’s Distillery and Heaven Hill Distilleries are planning small distilleries in historic buildings on Main Street and Beam Inc. plans to open a business center in the top of the former Borders Books space at Fourth and Liberty Streets. Those venues would offer their own tourist experiences, like tours and tastings.
Ethan Howard, business development and project coordinator at DDC, said there are three to six other similar projects that could happen in the future.
“We really wanted to celebrate the industry and find a way to enhance these private investments in the public realm,” Howard said.
He reiterated the plan is not a celebration of drinking, per se, but of the industry itself and the impact it’s had on the city. It suggests each block interprets different themes of the bourbon industry, like civic impact (whiskey rebellion), the environment (agriculture, limestone water filtration), transportation (Ohio River and the L&N railroad) and entrepreneurs.
Suggestions for Fourth Street themes include bourbon’s use in the culinary arts and craft bourbon.
The plan is a “concept plan”– it proposes a vision for what could be, but not necessarily exact design details.
“There’s so much to tell, these stories will appeal to to all ages, convention goers who have no idea about bourbon and bourbon enthusiasts alike,” McClellan said.
Large, 12-foot markers would announce the presence of distilleries and district markers would carry imagery and content to inform the public.
A towering contemporary landmark feature, reminiscent of a glass of bourbon, would act as a gateway to the district. A round-about at Fourth and Main Streets would be built of dark brown pavers meant to look like a bourbon barrel. And, the plan calls for a bourbon garden, a green space for events and activities, possibly on Main between 6th and 7th Streets.
“It would be very active at night,” McClellan said.
McClellan likened the plan to the Glick Peace Walk, an urban bike and pedestrian path that connects neighborhoods, cultural districts and entertainment amenities in Indianapolis, Ind., which her firm helped design.
Howard said the plan is meant to tie in with the statewide Kentucky Bourbon Trail and existing areas and amenities such as Museum Row and Whiskey Row.
The plan was created with input from city officials such as Ted Smith, the director of Department of Economic Growth and Innovation, the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, Greater Louisville Inc. and the Kentucky Distiller’s Association, among others.
The plan cost $20,000 and will require another $500,000 for design work. Howard said LDC is fundraising now within the public sector and local grant foundations. He said ideally, the design work would be completed in nine months and construction would begin in 2014.
He said he felt the area had enough historic and cultural ties to the bourbon industry to carry the plan even if the Beam, Heaven Hill and Michter’s distillery projects fell through.
According to a recent story by The Courier-Journal, Michter’s Distillery, which is transforming the long-vacant Fort Nelson Building at Eighth and Main, is about 18 months behind schedule and costs have risen from $7.8 million to around $9 million as bowed brick walls are now being shored up.