Kentucky Town Takes Risk on Expensive Expo Center

Published July 1, 2009

Corbin, Kentucky is home to the restaurant where Col. Sanders began his finger-lickin’-good Kentucky Fried Chicken enterprise several decades ago. It’s also where a new, 132,000 square foot expo center large enough to hold nearly all of Corbin’s 7,742 residents has been built.

Local politicians and business leaders backed the $23 million David L. Williams Southeastern Agricultural and Expo Center in Corbin, which opened in March.

Even budget deficits of similar facilities in Kentucky—including Pikeville’s East Kentucky Expo Center, a 7,000-seat arena about 140 miles northeast of Corbin—didn’t dull their enthusiasm.

Theory Doesn’t Match Reality

Heywood Sanders, an expert on convention centers, isn’t surprised.

“What we often see these days is that these kinds of facilities are built with the expectation that they will produce a temporary manna from heaven,” said Sanders, a professor of public administration at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Sanders points out promises of substantial economic development accompanying most expo center plans often fail to account for market realities.

“It’s a wonderful theory, but the only problem is it bumps up against the reality of other communities—large and small—that are pursuing the same projects,” Sanders said.

Backers Expect Regional Destination

Supporters of the new facility claim the nearby Interstate 75 will make the expo center what similar facilities in other parts of Kentucky have not been—profitable.

Local resident Betty Lyttle envisions the expo center becoming a destination point for tourists throughout the region and locals staying closer to home for entertainment.

“They don’t have to drive to Lexington now, and this is so easy to get to, right off I-75,” said Lyttle, who purchased tickets to a “Bill Gaither and Friends” gospel music concert on March 26.

State Auditor Crit Luallen’s office revealed the Pikeville facility ran an operating deficit of $800,000 in 2006, its second year.

However, supporters of the Corbin project claim Pikeville doesn’t have the advantage of a major thoroughfare with similar amounts of traffic and exposure, which hurts its chances.

Worries Already Cropping Up

While the Gaither concert eventually sold out, the city apparently is worried about prospects for the center’s long-term profitability.

According to receipts obtained by the Corbin Times-Tribune through a Freedom of Information Act request, the city purchased $20,000 worth of tickets for Montgomery Gentry, the expo center’s first show on March 12, to give to friends and family members of city employees and dignitaries from around the region to “make sure the opening night was a success.”

Even so, a well-below-capacity crowd of 4,200 people attended opening night.

Jim Waters ([email protected]) is director of policy and communications at the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions in Bowling Green, Kentucky.