LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - Louisville Metro leaders held a forum alongside tourism and business officials Tuesday to discuss how COVID-19 and months of civil unrest have impacted the city’s economy, the hospitality industry, and the public’s perception of downtown Louisville.
Among the panel was Mayor Greg Fischer, LMPD Chief Yvette Gentry, Metro Council President David James, Congressman John Yarmuth, President of Louisville Tourism Karen Williams, and President of Greater Louisville Inc. Sarah Davasher-Wisdom.
According to Williams, Louisville was on track to have one of the best fiscal years ever.
“The business that was on the books that we would be enjoying today was over 528 groups for an economic impact of $531 million this community was going to enjoy, but then March hit us and it paralyzed, literally paralyzed our industry,” Williams said.
Jefferson County hospitality employees dropped from 60,000 in 2019 to 15,000 in 2020, mainly due to COVID-19, Williams said. In addition, the city lost around $429 million due to groups canceling and postponing visits. Hotel occupancy is as low as 6% in some places, compared to 70% occupancy last year.
“My first thought was that we have never been hit by a crisis so broad across society, so deep and so fast,” Yarmuth said.
The majority of the panel mentioned funding from the federal government would be the only way Louisville’s hospitality industry could recover.
“Without that, it’s just going to be even worse,” James said.
The panel also discussed the plummeting public perception of downtown Louisville which Mayor Fischer blamed mainly on the media. He said protests have been “largely quite small and quite peaceful.”
“We have tried to influence the media relative to some stories and have not been overly successful, let’s put it this way, but it is a challenge we have to lean into,” Fischer said.
The mayor said the city has to work to “change the narrative” in order to rectify the city’s image. However, Chief Gentry said it goes beyond that.
“Real reconciliation requires truth first, so for us to think we clear out Jefferson Square park and everyone can open up their business and wear a mask, that everyone’s going to be okay, that’s not accurate,” Gentry said. “Inequity is real and it exists here in Louisville in very stark ways.”
The police chief said the city needs to start by addressing inequity and “changing the way we do business” before real change happens. That includes creating more opportunities for the black community to succeed like their white counterparts, she said.
In addition, Gentry suggested the city begin a campaign to explain to the public when it’s appropriate to call the police and when it’s not. She said the department receives around 375,000 calls for service annually and 42,000 of those calls involve people who are “mad but not afraid.” For example, Gentry said the department receives thousands of calls complaining about homeless people.
“It’s not against the law to be homeless,” Gentry said.
This has led to over-policing in the city, she said.
She also encouraged businesses to try to prevent crime through environmental design.
“Some of it is through our own design, how we engage people. How far can somebody get into your business before they have contact with somebody? That’s never a good idea. If I can walk 300, 400 feet before I engage somebody, that could be a problem,” Gentry explained.
“We cannot continue to use law enforcement for things that are not law enforcement related. It hurts us in our attempt to build relationships, and we just don’t have the capacity. I’m 160 officers down with a tremendous crime problem I have to focus on. I can’t just come there to tell your son to act right when his ‘act right’ has been broken his whole life,” Gentry said.
In addition, Williams mentioned Louisville Tourism recently created a permanent “black tourism task force” that will work to draw more tourists into Louisville.
“We want every single visitor that comes in this community to feel like they are welcomed here,” Williams said.
Davasher-Wisdom of Greater Louisville, Inc. said her group is working to help boost black business ownership by connecting black business owners with means to grow in the corporate world.
“We find that a lot of black-owned businesses are not making the right inroads to corporations because they don’t have the connections,” she said. “We don’t have to be the connector, but we can be the connector.”
“Taking these kinds of steps and being public about it, embracing the national spotlight, being accountable to all these things will help us write a new narrative for our city,” Fischer said.