UK basketball

All options on table for Rupp Arena, Gray and Barnhart say

Consulting firm to examine if renovation is practical

bfortune@herald-leader.com, jtipton@herald-leader.comAugust 23, 2011 

Renovate Rupp Arena? Build a new arena?

During a Monday briefing for reporters, Mayor Jim Gray and University of Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart said that Lexington leaders will be prudent, consider all options and be mindful of the needs of UK basketball and the city as they explore creating a downtown entertainment district that includes either Rupp or a new arena.

Advice from Mayor Michael B. Coleman during a fact-finding trip to Columbus, Ohio, earlier this month made an impression on Gray.

"Dream big," he said of Coleman's advice. "You can always adjust."

Barnhart echoed that statement when he spoke about what he learned on the tour of Columbus' Nationwide Arena and the Ohio capital's 75-acre Arena District.

"When the time came to take a risk, they swung big," he said.

The Arena, Arts and Entertainment District Task Force has set a goal of deciding on a plan by early next year.

But Gray noted that the process of exploring options is a long way from the finish line. "We're at Step One or Two," he said. "This is a project that will have 10 steps."

Barnhart said UK would be "open-minded" to either renovating Rupp or building a new arena. "My job is to protect University of Kentucky basketball and make sure it has what it needs to be the flagship of college basketball," he said. "... We think about the next 30, 40, 50 years of Kentucky basketball, and how we can be partners with the city in what the mayor's trying to get done."

In one of the early steps, the task force hired a Philadelphia-based consulting firm, Global Spectrum, to look at the civic center complex. Global Spectrum officials are in Lexington this week to assess whether Rupp can be renovated or whether a new arena is needed. An opinion from Global Spectrum is not expected until mid-fall, the mayor's office said.

A second consultant will be hired to make recommendations on the entire 46-acre project that would include the arena and surrounding area. Those recommendations are expected around the first of the year.

"When I think of this project, I think of an event experience that includes university basketball, all the other events that go on in Rupp, the convention center and the needs of the city," Gray said.

How to finance an entertainment district must be determined. Gray noted how a partnership of public and private financing can be key. "Not just here, but across the world," he said.

The city of Columbus paid for such infrastructure as streets and sewers. Nationwide Insurance led the private sector's contribution.

With an eye toward the shaky economy, Lexington businessman Jim Host suggested earlier this year that Rupp Arena be preserved as college basketball's Fenway Park. Rather than go through the expense of building a new arena, Lexington could renovate Rupp more economically, said Host, who headed a task force that planned the Yum Center in Louisville.

"We'll be open to looking at everything," Barnhart said when asked about Host's comments. "... I'm not going to say we're locked into one thing. My thing is to be open-minded."

Gray echoed that sentiment. "You don't prejudge," the mayor said. "There are a lot of moving parts in a project like this."

Gray said that either Rupp Arena or a new downtown arena had to meet the needs of UK's basketball program.

When asked how Rupp Arena was not currently meeting the needs of the program, Barnhart said, "In today's world, we've got to make sure the fan amenities are what we think our fans deserve." Those amenities include "electronics" and updated concession stands, he said.

Barnhart also said that a historic building like Rupp does not impress recruits as much as people might think, implying that a new arena could be a more effective recruiting tool.

"Generally, kids have a three- or four-year window," he said. "They don't look much past that."

Whether a new arena is built in downtown Lexington or the existing Rupp Arena renovated, Barnhart expects Coach John Calipari to provide plenty of input.

"One of the things I appreciate (about Calipari) is he respects Joe (B. Hall) and Coach (Adolph) Rupp," Barnhart said. "He will absolutely have a vision of what he thinks we can do to carry on (their legacy). ... He will have ideas, and I'm thankful for that."

A question about luxury suites and the ever-evolving nature of providing access to fans prompted Barnhart's comment.

After a reporter noted that revenue can be generated by having fans pay extra to watch halftime locker rooms, Barnhart smiled and quipped, "That scares me."

Former UK Coach Joe B. Hall attended a media briefing. He suggested Lexington not simply follow the footsteps of planners in Columbus or Indianapolis. Members of the task force are scheduled to visit Indianapolis on Friday.

"I hope we don't copy anybody else," said Hall, adding that he hoped the project "would be better than everybody else's. Not in expense, but in design, in excitement. I'm sure that's what people are looking for. Let's make it unique (to) Kentucky."

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