Mayor appoints task force to study Rupp Arena’s Future

March 29, 2011 By Cheryl Truman
Lexington, KY
Lexington Herald Leader

Less than 24 hours after the University of Kentucky nailed down a spot in the NCAA Final Four, Mayor Jim Gray appointed a 42-member group Monday to study the future of Rupp Arena and Lexington Center.

The group, to be called the Arena, Arts and Entertainment Task Force, will be chaired by Brent Rice, a Lexington attorney and developer.

It will be financed with $350,000 in private donations, which have not yet been raised. Gray said the money will be used to hire "the best of the best" consultants.

"We know that this arena needs to be the best, state of the art," Gray said of the study of the future of Rupp, where UK's men's basketball team has played for 35 years.

Gray said the committee's first charge would be to determine the feasibility of redesigning and renovating Rupp.

In January, UK President Lee T. Todd Jr. encouraged Gray to consider every idea, "including the concept of a new arena."

Gray said at the time that it would be much cheaper to renovate Rupp than to build a new arena. But some question whether Rupp could accommodate enough luxury boxes to fulfill the demands for such amenities.

There is no estimate of how much a new arena would cost. Louisville's KFC Yum Center, where the University of Louisville plays, cost $238 million.

The new committee is peppered with businessmen, developers, boosters and former UK players and administrators, and some who might benefit from increased business in and around downtown.

Even though Lexington is experiencing a budget crunch, the city is responsible for "making investments in tough times," Gray said, and "the best time to examine the future is when you're at the bottom."

"Lexington Center should get off its island and become part of downtown," he said.

UK is in similarly grim financial straits. Faculty and staff have not had a raise in three years, and the state's own budget problems mean that state support is unlikely to increase.

Gray and Todd both said they envision the area between UK and an upgraded Lexington Center complex as a draw for UK students and visitors who come to UK's games.

The possible renovation of Rupp Arena presents certain difficulties, including relocating basketball games during the renovation and finding enough seats to accommodate UK's fan base.

Whether the appointment of the task force signals a preference for a new arena and renovation of the current Lexington Center/Rupp Arena complex for other purposes was unclear and is likely to remain so until the committee starts meeting with consultants and making recommendations.

What is clear is that the city and the university are striking while the UK men's basketball team is on a hot streak, having unexpectedly played its way into the NCAA Final Four.

"This is a broader concept than just basketball for sure," Todd said of the task force's job. An upgraded venue "does make a difference to our student recruiting and to our faculty," he said.

The arts component of the study will reflect what some have said is a need for a new performing-arts space to replace UK's Singletary Center, which lacks the space to house touring companies of New York productions. Such productions now go either to Centre's College's Norton Center for the Arts or to Eastern Kentucky University's Center for the Performing Arts.

Gray said the committee's work would begin immediately while the funds for consultants are being raised. Rice said the committee should finish its work by January 2012.

Having UK in the Final Four is "a great omen for this task force," Rice said. He said the only improvement for the timing of the task force announcement would be to have national and international media back next week, "so they can see what this city really thinks of its basketball."

Todd, who will retire in June, said the committee "has got to be realistic, but we've also got to dream."

He also joked that he told the UK basketball players that "I'm a much better president when they win ball games."

Former UK basketball coach Joe B. Hall, named to the task force, said the timing was particularly fortunate because the Wildcats beat North Carolina on Sunday: "It would be a downer if we'd gotten beat, but we certainly got a boost."

Discussion of an arena is nothing new. In 2007, Lexington officials recommended planning for a new arena, expanding the Lexington Center's convention space and creating a performing-arts auditorium using a tax increment financing, or TIF, district designated for the state's economically depressed areas. The plan never got off the ground.

The new task force is expected to hold a public forum this fall, draft its development plan in late 2011 and hold a public forum on its final report in early 2012.

Gray said Lexington has an advantage over Louisville because it owns 46 acres that include the Lexington Center complex and areas around it, whereas Louisville's KFC Yum Center sits on a seven-acre site.

"This is a major competitive advantage and a unique asset in a downtown and city of our size," Gray said.

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