Mary Ellen Wiederwohl, chief of Louisville Forward, thanked her staff for their hard work to increase economic development in Louisville. | Photo by Caitlin Bowling
Mary Ellen Wiederwohl, chief of Louisville Forward, thanked her staff for their hard work to increase economic development in Louisville. | Photo by Caitlin Bowling

Although people say business in Louisville stops during the week of the Kentucky Derby, that’s not really the case.

Sure, employees leave early to attend various Kentucky Derby Festival events or have Oaks Day off work, but for some, including Louisville-Jefferson County Metro Government, the annual event is a business opportunity.

“It’s huge because people come in and are blown away by what’s going on in the city,” Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer told Insider Louisville. “It elevates our city to a whole other level in their minds as a great global city, and they see this tremendous event going on at the track.  …They just walk away saying, ‘Wow, this city vastly exceeds my expectations.’ ”

This year, around 30 business people will visit as the city’s special guest for the Kentucky Derby, according to Mary Ellen Wiederwohl, chief of the city’s economic development arm Louisville Forward. In that role, Wiederwohl is a key player in efforts to bring companies to the city.

Each year, the guests enjoy brunch on the morning of Oaks Day, dinner at Metro Hall after the running of the Derby, and during the course of the weekend go back and forth from Churchill Downs. Fischer said the business leaders also are taken through various neighborhoods in Louisville.

“These are businesses, food people, film people,” Fischer said. The Derby “really showcases our city in an extraordinary way.”

Companies in Louisville also use Derby as a business opportunity. Some offer a trip to Churchill Downs on Oaks or Derby as an incentive for employees, or executives invite people from other companies that they either do business with or hope to do business with in the future.

Although the Derby excitement is not the only factor a company considers when exploring a move to Louisville, the festive weekend in Louisville can help.

Because of the role the Derby can play in the city’s economic development, it was a good time for the city to celebrate the fact that for the second year in a row, Louisville Forward was named one of Site Selection magazine’s top U.S. economic development groups for 2015. Notably, Louisville Forward is just under two years old.

Louisville Forward earlier this year was ranked a Top 10 metro in terms of number of investment projects. Louisville ranked seventh on the list, and nearby Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio, ranked fourth and fifth, respectively. Chicago ranked first.

Since its creation, Louisville Forward has helped add 10,500 new jobs to the city, an investment of nearly $3 billion, according to the city.

“We are making enormous strides,” Fischer said during a press conference about the accolade.

Projects currently being developed — including $600 million in hotel and apartment projects, $83.3 million in bourbon distillery experiences and the $28 million Paristown Point development —  represent another $3 billion.

“Louisville is literally on a roll,” Wiederwohl said.

Derek Bland, vice president of business development for Houston Johnson, said the city’s focus on growth-oriented small businesses has allowed companies like Houston Johnson to expand. IL previously reported that the local logistics company plans to double its workforce in Louisville, which also will increase its revenues two-fold.

“That success will spill over into the community,” Bland said, adding: “We are very appreciative of the Louisville Forward team. It is because of your efforts and success that allows us to grow and realize sustained growth.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated. A previous version of the story included incorrect information provided by the mayor’s office.

Caitlin Bowling
Louisville native Caitlin Bowling has covered the local restaurant and retail scene since 2014. After graduating from the Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, Caitlin got her start at a newspaper in the mountains of North Carolina where she won multiple state awards for her reporting. Since returning to Louisville, she’s written for Business First and Insider Louisville, winning awards for health and business reporting and becoming a go-to source for business news. In addition to restaurants and retail business, Caitlin covers real estate, economic development and tourism. Email Caitlin at [email protected]