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'Packed every single day': Downtown, NULU businesses reap benefits of growing crowds ahead of Kentucky Derby

An expert said the timing is favorable right now for stores and restaurants, especially in areas walking distance from Waterfront Park.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — As Louisville prepares for an influx of tourists for the Kentucky Derby, businesses downtown and in the NuLu neighborhood say they're already reaping the benefits of larger crowds.

Between events hosted by the Kentucky Derby Festival -- including 'Thunder' -- and a return of Waterfront Wednesday concerts along the Ohio River, business owners say there's been a major resurgence in foot traffic.

"The bar has been packed every single day which is fantastic," said Chrissy Martin, manager at Justins' House of Bourbon on Market Street.

Justins' House of Bourbon, a liquor store, said it's already seen the influx. And with around 40% of their sales coming from tourists, they expect a boom in the coming days.

"[It's] Being able to come back and enjoy our city, know that we are here, and finding those bottles that may have been put on the backburner for a little bit," Martin said.

RELATED: Kentucky Derby Museum opens new exhibit on how the Derby became what it is today

An expert said the timing is favorable right now for stores and restaurants, especially in areas within walking distance from Waterfront Park.

"There's a lot of hope, a lot of optimism," said Rebecca Fleischaker with the Louisville Downtown Partnership. "Feet on the street, that's what makes downtown vibrant."

On East Main Street, Aaron Barbour wanted a piece of that pie. He chose to move his family restaurant, Dasha Barbours, from the Buechel neighborhood to downtown to reap the benefits of those crowds. They held their grand opening and ribbon cutting on Thursday.

"Increase our traffic, and give us more business that we so needed," Barbours said. "Just to see people flooding in here, it was just phenomenal."

Then, you have shops in NULU like Muth's Candies, around for more than 100 years, and are well established. Still, with the threat of multiple peaks of COVID-19, even they chose to temporarily close on a handful of holidays over the last couple of years to be safe.

RELATED: More seating, clubs expected after Churchill Downs renovations are completed

But then this year, their first Easter back in person since the start of the pandemic, the demand shot back up to pre-COVID levels.

"It's been our best Easter in my lifetime," said Sarah Blazin, who says the store has seen an obvious uptick in customers since the start of Derby season. "Derby is our 4th largest season, so for us, it's very high traffic. The cost of running a business just continues to go up, so for every dollar we get in the door, that's another dollar we can turn around and increase benefits and increase wages."

Meanwhile, Fleischaker said things are trending in the right direction for businesses. She says the next step will be to get staffing levels back to where they were years ago, especially in the hospitality industry.

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