- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 29, 2015

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - With events already being booked for the renovated Kentucky International Convention Center even before construction work begins, officials on Tuesday offered a glimpse of what the state-backed project will look like.

Gov. Steve Beshear, Louisville’s mayor and others attended an unveiling of designs for the $180 million project that they hope will boost convention business in Kentucky’s largest city.

But first, the sprawling convention center spanning a couple of downtown city blocks will close for about two years during the renovation. Work is set to begin in August 2016.

The project, financed in part by $56 million in state-backed bonds, will increase exhibit space and renovate meeting rooms within the center’s existing footprint. The rest of the financing will come from bonds backed by revenue from a 1 percent increase in taxes paid by people staying in Louisville hotels. The room tax increase was approved by Louisville Metro Council.

The goal is to attract conventions and trade shows that have outgrown the existing space and to lure new business.

“It’s going to help us send that message around the world that this city has got it going on,” Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said.

Twenty-one events already are booked for the renovated facility from August 2018 through July 2023, Beshear said.

“Six of those represent new businesses,” the governor said. “Another six are returning only because the extra space will be available. Without it, they would have had to leave. We expect these numbers to grow.”

The renovated convention center is expected to yield considerably more economic activity and produce more jobs, officials said. The center’s current annual economic impact of about $43 million is forecast to exceed $53 million due to the remake.

Once the renovations are completed, more bourbon distilleries and hotels will have sprung up nearby, the mayor said.

“Downtown is going to be a very different place in two or three years,” Fischer said.

Louisville is a big player in the state’s tourism business, which produces more than $13 billion in yearly economic impact. Tourism generated nearly $1.4 billion in tax revenues for local and state governments in 2014.

Meanwhile, restaurants near the convention center are bracing for the center’s two-year closure.

Most events that were booked for the convention center during the renovations have been relocated elsewhere in Louisville, said Karen Williams, president and CEO of the Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau. The handful of events lost by the city will return once the center reopens, she said.

“We’re not losing them permanently, any of them,” she said.

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