Economy

Churchill Downs tickets for 32 people. Deluxe rooms at the Omni Hotel. Gourmet food and treats. Rain ponchos. Mayor Greg Fischer’s administration spent $115,000 in public monies on these and other items to entertain economic development prospects and other guests at this year’s Kentucky Derby, according to city records provided to WFPL. Corporate sponsors kicked in another $26,000.

Louisville’s economic development chief Mary Ellen Wiederwohl told members of the Metro Council’s budget committee on Monday that the administration had 13 guests this year who were eyeing Louisville as a place to do business. But future spending on the event is likely to go down.

“They did run the spectrum of activities and opportunities but there was a heavy focus on technology in our guests this year, as well as medical logistics and our food and beverage cluster,” Wiederwohl said during a budget hearing.

Council members are in the process of determining how to cut more than $25 million from next fiscal year’s budget amid rising employee health care and pension costs.

The items the Fischer administration spent taxpayer dollars on this year are similar to Derby weekends past, and bring the total it has spent on private parties, tickets and more to more than $500,000 since 2015.

Secrecy around the guest list has earned the mayor and his team criticism for hiding how public money is spent and making it difficult to see whether the expenditures pay off.

Wiederwohl has argued that sharing the names of business prospects would have a “chilling” effect on economic development in the area, and an ordinance introduced last year that would have forced the mayor to release his full guest list years after the fact failed in Metro Council.

In her address to the budget committee Monday, Wiederwohl shared limited details about what business the mayor’s Derby entertaining has attracted.

Since 2015, the first year this type of entertaining originated in the mayor’s office rather than the local chamber of commerce, Louisville has gained 11 new projects, nearly 1,700 new jobs and more than $1 billion in investment from guests, Wiederwohl said. Another 17 projects are in the pipeline.

But the level of spending will go down next year, amid the larger budget cuts, Wiederwohl said. The dollars come from the account that includes Louisville Tourism, whose budget is expected to drop to $240,000 from $300,000.

“We have reduced that line item by 20 percent in the proposed budget,” Wiederwohl said. “We intend to reduce the Derby expenditures by at least that amount. We are going to try to look at the opportunities to increase private fundraising for that.”

She said the administration fundraises for the Oaks evening dinner and reception every year, but that corporate sponsorship availability is limited.

Amina Elahi is WFPL's City Reporter.