Gray calls for panel to study redesigning Rupp Arena

Rupp Arena: task force to study redesign of facility into state-of-the-art destination

jtipton@herald-leader.comJanuary 26, 2011 

Lexington Mayor Jim Gray on Tuesday called for a study to determine the feasibility of redesigning and renovating Rupp Arena and the Lexington Center. He did not mention building a new downtown arena.

"There are many people who believe the civic center's arena and the convention complex need a total redesign and renovation to bring the facilities up to competitive standards," Gray said. "It needs to be the best — state of the art. Making it the best is a responsible investment in our Lexington brand."

Gray said he will appoint a task force in the next two weeks and charge it with conducting a study "to get our arms around what is possible" at the civic center, which houses the arena used by the University of Kentucky basketball team and the city's convention center.

That study, with a Lexington civic leader as its head, will be financed by private donations, he said in his first major speech since becoming mayor.

"The first step should be to examine the existing facility to determine whether it could be utilized," Gray said after the speech.

Jim Host, a Lexington businessman who is chairman of the Louisville Arena Authority that built the KFC Yum Center, said he declined Gray's invitation to be the chairman because he has worked on the Louisville arena project "24/7 for almost six years" and is 73 years old. "I'm more than willing to be an adviser," he said.

University of Kentucky President Lee T. Todd Jr. said in a statement Tuesday afternoon the idea of building a new arena to replace Rupp should not be discarded and UK "is very interested in being a part of the planning process."

"We would encourage every idea to be considered, including the concept of a new arena," Todd said.

Although his speech mentioned only the redesign and renovation option, Gray did not say in a later interview he was opposed to a new arena.

He pointed out that, in his construction business, he is used to looking at all opportunities. "We examine options all the time in design," he said. "You try to take the best path and the path you can afford."

Gray is on leave as the head of Gray Construction, a family business in Lexington.

Gray floated the idea of using the current parking lot for the center to add retail, residential and entertainment venues, as well as parking. As a whole, the center should become more a part of downtown, he said.

"The civic center needs to get off its island and become more integrated with our downtown," he said.

Renovation cheaper

For the first time since the creation of a merged government system, city revenues declined for a third straight year in 2010, Gray said.

And a renovation of Rupp Arena would be far less costly than constructing a new arena, he said. "We have an existing facility to deal with one way or the other."

Gray said the KFC Yum Center in Louisville would be the "competitive benchmark" the city would use.

Host said Gray asked him in the last week or so what he thought should be done with Rupp Arena.

"My comment was 'I don't think there is any way you can duplicate the look of the arena in Louisville in Lexington on that (High Street) site because you don't have the river, you don't have the front door, you don't have the plaza, you don't have the whole area of Main Street like you have in Louisville,'" Host said.

"If it were me, I'd make this (Rupp Arena) the Wrigley Field of college basketball," Host said. "I'd make this the Fenway Park of college basketball. Because already it has a certain mystique about it nationwide of 'My gosh, I'm going to play in Rupp Arena.'"

A long history

Rupp Arena opened in 1976. Twenty years later, then UK Coach Rick Pitino suggested a new arena be built on campus.

Instead, the Lexington Center Corp. gave Rupp Arena two major renovations and UK signed a lease that expires after the 2017-18 season. The renovations, which began in 2001 and concluded in 2004, included $1.6 million for the installation of all blue seating in the lower arena and a $52 million refurbishing of Rupp Arena and the Lexington Center complex.

The idea of a new arena never completely faded away. In 2007, the city halted its study of the financial feasibility of building a new arena. Instead, UK looked into the so-called IMG plan, which was based on construction of a new arena to be paid for by the revenues it generated.

In December, UK announced it had shelved that plan and passed the buck back to local government.

Like Wrigley Field

The mayor said he wanted a "Lexington civic leader and local businessman" to chair the new study group.

Host said he envisioned a renovation that included chair-back seats replacing bleachers in the upper arena and luxury suites at the top of the lower arena bowl.

"There's all kinds of ways to develop additional revenue that could support the retro-fitting of the arena," Host said.

Host said he had not spoken to UK Director of Athletics Mitch Barnhart or Coach John Calipari about his ideas.

Neither was available to comment, UK said.

When it was suggested UK officials might have their hearts set on a new arena, Host went back to his Wrigley Field/Fenway Park analogy.

"Why haven't the Cubs built a new facility?" he said. "They retrofitted (their baseball stadiums). What's better than watching a game at Rupp Arena? It's the same thing."

Staff reporter Beverly Fortune contributed to this story.

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