On its 35th birthday, Rupp Arena is at a crossroads

After 35 years, Lexington weighs whether venue has become too outdated to serve city's future needs

October 16, 2011 

  • Arena Highlights

    1974: Financed by $37 million in bonds, construction begins on Lexington Center complex, including a basketball arena.

    Oct. 17, 1976: First concert at Rupp Arena: Lawrence Welk.

    November 1976: UK basketball makes its Rupp debut, beating Wisconsin, 72-64.

    March 1985: The NCAA Final Four basketball semifinals are held at Rupp.

    June 1996: Rick Pitino, then UK's basketball coach, suggests that UK build a new arena on campus.

    October 1999: City plans a $45 million overhaul of Rupp and the convention center; asks the state to kick in $30 million of the cost.

    August 2001: UK agrees to a long-term lease for UK basketball to remain in Rupp Arena through 2017-2018.

    August 2002: All of Rupp Arena's multi-color seats are replaced — with blue seats — at a cost of $1.6 million.

    2004: Renovation of the Lexington Center, including improvements to Rupp, is completed.

    October 2007: Lexington officials announce that they are in the early stages of planning a state-of-the-art arena and an expanded convention center to replace Rupp, to be paid for using a special downtown taxing district. That plan does not move forward.

    August 2008: The University of Kentucky announces that it is developing a plan for a new downtown basketball arena, one that would be financed privately. In 2010, officials say this plan has fallen through.

    January 2011: Lexington Mayor Jim Gray calls for a study to determine the feasibility of redesigning and renovating Rupp Arena and the Lexington Center. He later appoints the Arena, Arts and Entertainment Task Force, which continues to meet.

  • Rupp public forum

    What: First public forum on design plans for the future of Rupp Arena and the Lexington Center.

    When: 6 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday

    Where: Buster's, 899 Manchester St.

    Who pays for Rupp?

    Lexington Center is financially self-sustaining, generating $12 million in revenue annually.

    No money from the city's general fund goes to Lexington Center. Fayette County taxpayers pay no taxes toward Rupp Arena and Lexington Center unless they stay in a hotel in Fayette County and pay the 6 percent room tax, of which Lexington Center gets 2 percent.

    That portion goes directly to pay off the $22.5 million bond still owed on the center. It is due to be paid off in October 2021.

    "After we pay all our expenses, what we have left we typically spend on capital improvements," said Neil Werner, business director of Lexington Center Corp. With a 35-year-old complex encompassing about 40 acres downtown, "We have a huge capital maintenance schedule."

Thirty-five years ago this week, Rupp Arena opened with its first concert — band leader Lawrence Welk and his cast of Champagne Music Makers. Adolph Rupp himself was there, and he even took the stage with Welk for a few minutes.

Since then, the arena named for the legendary Kentucky basketball coach has hosted countless concerts, basketball games, circuses, ice shows and monster-truck rallies. It has undergone two extensive renovations and has been an economic bedrock for downtown Lexington.

On the 35th anniversary of its opening concert, Rupp sits at a crossroads as community leaders again debate its future. The question: Can the iconic arena continue to evolve for another 35 years? Or has it become outdated, a relic that needs to be torn down and replaced by a modern complex packed with luxury amenities and electronic gadgetry?

It's a subject that has been debated, discussed and studied virtually non-stop since Rupp had its 20th birthday, now 15 years ago.

Tom Minter, the man who was in charge of opening Lexington Center and ran it until his retirement in 2000, says he can't see a new arena doing more for the city of Lexington than Rupp has already done.

"Rupp has done, in my opinion, a larger number of events than most cities of our size, purely because of the way the facility works for the city," said Minter, former president and chief executive of the Lexington Center Corp.

Of course, Rupp is home court for the University of Kentucky Wildcats, and in 35 seasons in the arena, Kentucky has led the nation in attendance 23 times (including 15 of the past 16 seasons).

UK has a contract to play homes games at Rupp until 2018.

"UK is going to be a sell-out every time, whether they play in Rupp or some ramshackle rundown barn," Minter said. "What makes UK basketball is the fan base, regardless of who they play, when they play or where they play."

"I don't see a new arena doing anything of significance to add to that program," Minter said, adding that the cost of building a new arena or even refurbishing Rupp "would be significantly greater than the benefit."

Earlier this year, Mayor Jim Gray said many people think the civic center's arena and convention complex need a total redesign and renovation to bring them up to competitive standards. "It needs to be the best — state of the art. Making it the best is a responsible investment in our Lexington brand," he said.

The arena where the UK basketball team competes must be "the gold standard," UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart told a task force studying the future of Rupp Arena and the Lexington Center complex. "It can be nothing ... less than that."

In March, Gray appointed a 45-member Arena, Arts and Entertainment District Task Force to make recommendations on whether to renovate or replace Rupp — part of a larger look at the future of the entire Lexington Center and 40 surrounding acres.

In August, Gary Bates was chosen as the master planner to work with the task force to develop a plan for an arena and the arts and entertainment district. Bates is one of three founders of Space Group, a 12-year-old architecture and urban planning firm based in Oslo, Norway.

The first public forum to present ideas and get feedback from the public on the future of Rupp and the center will be 6 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Buster's on Manchester Street.

Functional vs. 'wow'

Not that Rupp is falling down by any means.

Since opening in 1976, the Lexington Center — which includes Rupp, the Shops at Lexington Center and convention space — has been expanded twice, in 1995 and 2004.

The bulk of the $50 million renovation and expansion in 2004 involved convention center improvements including additional ballrooms, meeting spaces, a new lobby and new storefronts. Arena renovations included concession stand and women's restroom upgrades, new seats and video boards.

"The building is 100 percent functional. I don't know a show out there, coming in this building and not being able to do anything and everything they want to do," said Carl Hall, director of arena management.

What's lacking goes beyond functionality, said Bill Owen, president and CEO of Lexington Center Corp. "It's more and more about fan experience, the 'wow' factor people have come to expect."

That means corporate loggias, sky boxes, seats with backs instead of bleachers, more and wider concourses where people can have social time, more women's restrooms, more concessions with upscale food.

"Popcorn and Cokes are not good enough anymore," Owen said.

Robert Baade, an economics professor at Lake Forest College in Illinois who specializes in the economics of sports arenas, said when a city looks to replace an arena or stadium, "it's not because the building is physically in disrepair. It's about economic obsolescence. Today, people want luxury amenities. Without those, an arena cannot be an economic driver."

Electronic gadgetry takes on a significant role in new arenas, with ribbon boards around the interior and jumbo video screens that are "absolutely stunning, and absolutely stunning as far as price goes," said Neil Werner, business director of Lexington Center Corp.

"But they make a game more fun, more exciting, and that's what people want," he said.

Estimates to build a new arena and convention center have ranged from $200 million to $300 million.

After the major renovation in 2004, the public perception was that it was a brand-new Rupp and a brand-new convention center, but Werner said that was far from the case.

"We got new paint and new carpet, but we still have a 35-year-old air conditioning system, water pipes and infrastructure, and it all needs to be maintained," he said.

Not just about sports

Pressure to update also is coming from the new KFC Yum Center that opened last year in Louisville, Baade said.

"To some extent, you have to keep pace with the competition. As so often is the case," he said, "this stuff is competition-driven."

"With more luxury amenities and luxury seating demanded by fans, it's often more efficacious to tear down the old stadium or arena than to engineer the old facility into the kind of amenities that matter so much for major college programs today," Baade said.

And it's not just about sports. Entertainers today want a state-of-the-art arena. "It's all about revenue-generation for the artists, too," he said.

In its first year, the Yum Center has attracted superstars Lady Gaga, Elton John, Kid Rock, Katy Perry and Justin Bieber. As an entertainment venue, the Yum Center was ranked No. 10 nationally and No. 24 worldwide by concert trade publication Pollstar in July.

For years, Rupp rolled out at least 35 top artists a year, including Jerry Lee Lewis, Rod Stewart, Fleetwood Mac, Jimmy Buffet, the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Tina Turner, Paul McCartney, Elton John and Billy Joel, Willie Nelson, Kiss and Bob Seger.

In 2010, concerts were down to 26; most were country singers.

Hall said several factors account for a decline in the number of A-list performers at Rupp: an economy gone south, fewer artists on the road, more performance venues for them to choose from and wildly expensive tickets.

Lady Gaga and her band are guaranteed $1 million to play a concert. Add $200,000 to haul in all her props and special effects, rent an arena, and pay for ushers, ticket-takers, security, advertising, insurance, catering and travel accommodations.

"Now you need $1.2 million to break even," Hall said. "Promoters can't keep mega tours out like they used to. Instead of 100 cities, they now play 40. If you're only going to play 40 cities, you're probably looking at the top 50 major markets."

The Louisville metro market has 1.5 million people; Lexington has 450,000.

"If it takes 20,000 people to break even, 2 percent of the Louisville market will get you 20,000 fans. It takes 5 percent of the Lexington market to get 20,000 fans. Where is a tour more likely to go?" Hall said.

Transforming downtown

As an economic catalyst, Rupp has played a major role in transforming downtown.

Before Rupp opened in 1976 at a cost of $45 million, there was no Financial Center, no Hyatt, no Hilton, no Victorian Square, no Triangle Center or Triangle Park.

Whenever an event is scheduled at Rupp or the convention center, it guarantees brisk traffic for downtown bars and restaurants, several business owners said. Whatever happens to the arena, they want to make sure that traffic continues — and grows.

"In a year, it accounts for 30 percent to 40 percent of our business," said Curtis Smith, bar manager at DeSha's restaurant at the corner of West Main and North Broadway.

A magical quality infuses Rupp, say supporters who want to see it reinvented. Beyond basketball and concerts, the arena has hosted hockey games, skating stars (Michelle Kwan, as a cast member of Campbell Soup Champions on Ice in 1998), and tennis royalty (Serena and Venus Williams played doubles there in 2004).

For prep basketball fans, the Sweet 16 high school basketball tournament is as sweet as it gets.

And there's perhaps the most famous concert that never was. Elvis Presley was scheduled to play a concert in Rupp on Aug. 23, 1977. More than 20,000 tickets sold. He died a week before the show.

Jim Sawyer, owner of Sawyer's in Triangle Center, checks the calender of events at Rupp and the convention center each month to help him schedule employees each day. Only about 20 days a year have no events at the Lexington Center, Sawyer said.

"Oh, yes, we see huge increases in businesses, especially with conferences. It could be the Kentucky Bar Association, an association of teachers or school principals. That Get Motivated conference a few weeks ago, we were swamped," he said.

From his restaurant, Sawyer looks across Triangle Park to Rupp and the convention center and sees "a jewel of a building over there. A little long in the tooth, but a jewel."

Reach Beverly Fortune at (859) 231-3251 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3251

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