When I visit other cities, I tend to keep a running mental scorecard comparing them with Kansas City. One of the very first things you notice when you exit Interstate 64 into Louisville, Kentucky, is the city's downtown arena, home to the University of Louisville men's and women's basketball teams. It sits on the banks of the Ohio River, and its name is writ large and bright on the facility's gray exterior: the KFC Yum! Center. Kansas City 1, Louisville 0.
In addition to boasting the headquarters of the nastiest fast-food chain in the United States, Louisville is also home to a downtown district operated by Cordish, the same Baltimore real-estate developer that brought Kansas City the heavily subsidized, underperforming chainborhood we call the Power & Light District. (Theirs is known as Fourth Street Live.) We'll call that one a wash.
But the occasion of my visit to Louisville was Forecastle, a three-day music and arts festival that I am chagrined to report is far superior to any festival in the Greater Kansas City metropolitan area. This year, its 10th anniversary, upward of 35,000 people attended Forecastle. Louisville heroes My Morning Jacket curated the fest; Wilco, Bassnectar, Neko Case, Beach House and Girl Talk were among the other 75 acts that performed over the weekend.
Forecastle is a homegrown event that bounced around other venues in the city before landing at the Louisville Waterfront Park, a perfectly central downtown location that maximizes the economic impact of the festival on the city in the same way Lollapalooza does for Chicago. Forecastle's finances were at the front of my mind this past weekend, after a week of driving and walking around Kansas City searching in vain for evidence of the crowds and revenues promised us by the All-Star Game. The official numbers aren't yet in, but it's safe by now to say that despite the reported $1.8 million the city spent readying for its big national close-up, the ASG had an underwhelming financial effect on the city's non-barbecue businesses. It was largely coastal media types and father-and-son duos from Wichita and Des Moines who came in for the ASG, and they stayed at hotels by the airport for a night or two, maybe hit up FanFest, watched a boring baseball game, and took off Wednesday morning. Most of them will never return.
It was a different scene in Louisville, a city about half the size of Kansas City, where the downtown streets were gridlocked and packed with festivalgoers for Forecastle. These are the types of visitors, it seems to me, that a city should spend money hoping to attract. They stay in the city and they spend money, and if they have fun, they return the next year. With my expenses for hotel, food, drink, and shopping around the Highlands (Louisville's Westport, if Westport were four times as large and laid out along one street, like Massachusetts Street in Lawrence), I alone dumped about $500 into the local economy. There were no special welcome signs painted on the pavement, and there was none of the desperate, maniacal cheerleading you observe in Kansas City whenever local groups or individuals put on a larger-than-average cultural event. Ironically, the fact that nobody in Louisville tried to sell me on Louisville is a big part of what sold me on Louisville. It's a vibrant, weird, historical city, and its charm speaks for itself.
This is the part where belligerent homers will start to accuse me of not being supportive enough of the festivals currently incubating in Kansas City. So let's have a look at what's going on festivalwise here in KC. According to a recent post on its Facebook page, Kanrocksas might return in 2013 after its money-losing inaugural run at the Kansas Speedway in 2011. I wish it the best. But even if Kanrocksas figures out a way to make its own math work, it'll hardly be a boon to the local economy. The hotels and the Target by the Legends might get some extra business, but it's a camping-centric event, held 30 minutes from downtown KC.