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TMCNet:  Lexington Herald-Leader Mark Story column [Lexington Herald-Leader :: ]

[April 19, 2014]

Lexington Herald-Leader Mark Story column [Lexington Herald-Leader :: ]

(Lexington Herald-Leader (KY) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) April 20--If you want to observe a process where up is down and dark is light, one need only view Lexington's now-stalled attempt to "re-invent" Rupp Arena as part of creating a downtown arts and entertainment district.


The fate of the Rupp project, a new Lexington convention center etc. ... is up in the air after a request for $80 million in state support for the proposed $310 million project did not gain approval last week in the state senate.

What now? Brent Rice, the Chairman of the Board of the Lexington Center Corp., the entity that oversees Rupp Arena, said Friday "This is too great a project with too many good people working on it to just walk away." I won't say everything I thought I knew about the state of Kentucky is being stood on its head in the Rupp renovation drive, but a lot of things are.

The University of Kentucky has not acted in this process as I would have expected.

Going back to when Rick Pitino's neckties were still blue in the 1990s, UK had been front and center with wishes for either a new arena to replace Rupp or a much-enhanced version of the existing facility.

Long after Pitino left UK, current Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart endorsed an effort with sports marketing firm IMG to build a new downtown basketball arena via private financing. When that attempt proved futile late in 2010, Barnhart told the Herald-Leader that a new arena for UK basketball was "in the hands of the city" of Lexington.

Voil..., present Lexington Mayor Jim Gray has made the centerpiece of his mayoralty a plan to transform downtown with a new arts and entertainment district. Included are designs to turn the aging Rupp Arena (opened in 1976) into a state-of-the-art, 21st Century venue.

One would think UK, which more less spent the past two decades pleading for exactly that, would be over the moon. Instead, the university's stance toward Gray's Rupp project has seemed tepid.

In February, when Gray and Gov. Steve Beshear spoke at a flashy news conference to unveil architect's renderings of the proposed new Rupp Arena, it was clear that all hands in the local power structure were supposed to be on deck in support.

Who did UK send? Not school president Eli Capilouto; not Barnhart; not men's basketball coach John Calipari. Instead, UK had a Barnhart assistant, DeWayne Peevy, representing it.

Jay Blanton, a UK spokesman, said Friday that the university "has tried to be a good partner with the city" on the Rupp project. "But Dr. Capilouto has repeatedly said his top priority is investment in (on-)campus infrastructure." Kentucky's politicians have not acted in this process as I would have expected.

For the record, I think Beshear, a Democrat, is right in his assertion that since the state kicked in some $75 million toward the construction of the KFC Yum Center in Louisville, it should provide similar backing for Lexington's arena project.

However, I also think that in light of the financing issues that have plagued the Yum Center since its opening, the Republican-controlled state senate was right to insist that Lexington make its financing mechanisms public. If the Senate hadn't fully had time to evaluate Lexington's plans to pay for the Rupp project etc., it was right -- gutty, even -- to hit the brakes.

Then again, UK basketball fans have not acted in this process as I would have expected.

When the Louisville Cardinals got a sparkling new basketball palace in 2010, I figured it would create a massive public demand for UK to have an arena that is even newer and better.

Instead, at least from the UK fans I've interacted with, there has seemed a surprising ambivalence over the Rupp renovation plans. Maybe the financing issues that have beset the Louisville arena have scared people. Or maybe the fact that UK men's basketball keeps churning out No. 1 recruiting classes and Final Four trips while playing in the "old Rupp" has dulled the sense of need.

By this November, we should find out if the public in Fayette County is on board with Gray's plans for Rupp Arena. The mayor is up for re-election. His two opponents, English professor Danny Mayer and former Lexington police chief Anthany Beatty, have both criticized the downtown proposals.

Here's what I think.

From the get-go, the city of Lexington and the upper administration at UK have not seemed in sync regarding the Rupp "reinvention." It's kind of refreshing for a UK president to have non-sports priorities. Still, the question is, does money NOT allotted by the state toward the Rupp Arena project then end up available to the university for on-campus infrastructure enhancements? I see little evidence of that from this year's state budget wrangling.

For the Rupp Arena project to happen -- and if the financing makes sense, Rupp is outdated and in need of substantial upgrades -- the city of Lexington and UK need to start speaking from the same script.

Of that, I am still sure.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230.Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com.

___ (c)2014 the Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, Ky.) Visit the Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, Ky.) at www.kentucky.com Distributed by MCT Information Services

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