Lexington Mayor Jim Gray to ask legislature for Rupp Arena funding

UK president won't support state funding of project

lblackford@herald-leader.comDecember 13, 2011 

  • Statement from UK President Eli Capilouto, Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart and Coach John Calipari

    "In what remains a challenging economy, we must be unified as a campus community about our priorities as we seek private support and finite state dollars to help fund our dreams for the University and for the Commonwealth. To that end, our Board of Trustees, our faculty and staff, and our students have spoken with a clear and unequivocal voice: Our primary focus should — and must — be the construction and renovation of facilities and living and learning spaces so that we can revitalize the core of our campus and, in particular, further strengthen the undergraduate education we provide. Targeted investments in athletics facilities will be part of that equation as we continue to improve our competitive position across all sports. We also will further utilize this powerful brand to recruit and retain Kentucky's best students.

    We cannot at this time and in this economy support initiatives — such as infrastructure proposals being made relative to Rupp Arena — that compete with pressing on-campus priorities for scarce state operating dollars and capital construction funds. We have communicated with Mayor Gray about this issue. He understands our perspective and has graciously engaged with us in ongoing, productive dialogue. We have pledged to continue to be an active partner in this process, as the health and vibrancy of UK and Lexington are inextricably linked. We are fortunate to be in such a terrific and historic venue for college basketball and we are committed to our long-term future there."

Lexington Mayor Jim Gray said Monday he will ask for about $20 million from the General Assembly in the upcoming legislative session to start working on potential changes to the Rupp Arena district, but that request won't be backed by Rupp's main tenant, the University of Kentucky.

UK President Eli Capilouto said earlier Monday that he will not support state funding for the project because it would compete for state funding with building projects on campus.

"I applaud the mayor for his effort and process. ... It's been a healthy exercise and it's an exciting vision," Capilouto told the editorial board of the Lexington Herald-Leader while talking about the task force studying the future of Rupp Arena.

"As I said to the mayor, my focus is the core of our campus and that has to be our priority, and we can't be involved in something that competes for what we see as our priority: educating the next generation of Kentuckians," Capilouto said.

"So we want to be an ongoing partner with the mayor as they work through this and fully recognize that the destinies of our campus and the city are intertwined, but right now I couldn't get involved in supporting any request that would compete with our needs on campus."

UK has roughly $1 billion in construction needs on its aging campus, and it is preparing to build a new dorm in the next year. In the long run, Capilouto has said, he hopes UK can replace roughly 4,000 of the school's 5,184 dorm beds and create 4,000 more during the next decade.

In a statement Monday, Gray emphasized the integral partnership between UK and Lexington, and his opinion that the proposed Arena, Arts and Entertainment District will support the school.

"UK is asking for significant investment for its infrastructure and dorms," the statement said.

"We are making a request for beginning funds for a project that will help fill up those dorms and encourage the best and brightest students, faculty, and staff to come here."

The Rupp Arena task force is considering replacing or renovating city-owned Rupp Arena, and possibly creating an arts and entertainment district in the neighborhood around Rupp. A feasibility study said renovating Rupp Arena would cost between $110 million and $130 million, compared to $300 million to $325 million for a new arena.

It also said expanding Lexington Center for additional convention and exhibition space would cost $70 million, compared to $100 million to $130 million for a new convention center.

A consultant is expected to make a final recommendation in January about whether to replace or renovate Rupp Arena. There has been little discussion about how such a project would be financed.

Gray spokeswoman Susan Straub said the request would start work on whatever the task force decides to do.

Capilouto said he is worried the General Assembly would pit any request to help fund a potential Rupp Arena project against UK's top capital construction priorities.

Gray said that Rupp would be the centerpiece of the Arena, Arts and Entertainment District, but the entire district was about more than Rupp.

"Just look down the road to Louisville and see what remarkable things can happen when a city, state, and university work together," Gray said. "By creating an economic engine in our downtown around a great brand like Rupp Arena, we lift up Lexington and the whole state."

Capilouto said UK would remain involved in discussions about Rupp, particularly from the perspective of a long-term lease-holder. As part of UK's long-term plans, Capilouto has said future athletics facilities should be self-financed.

In response to a request for comment from UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart, UK released a statement from Barnhart, Capilouto and UK men's basketball coach John Calipari.

"In what remains a challenging economy, we must be unified as a campus community about our priorities as we seek private support and finite state dollars to help fund our dreams for the University and for the Commonwealth," the statement said.

"To that end, our Board of Trustees, our faculty and staff, and our students have spoken with a clear and unequivocal voice: Our primary focus should — and must — be the construction and renovation of facilities and living and learning spaces so that we can revitalize the core of our campus and, in particular, further strengthen the undergraduate education we provide.

"We are fortunate to be in such a terrific and historic venue for college basketball and we are committed to our long-term future there."

Capilouto appeared at the UK University Senate on Monday afternoon, and he received a round of applause after he explained his stance. The Senate voted unanimously to endorse Capilouto's joint statement with Calipari and Barnhart.

"This is about how the university speaks with one voice about priorities, and that's good," said Mark Kornbluh, the dean of Arts and Sciences.

Brent Rice, chairman of the Rupp task force, said his group's main focus is to develop a master plan for the district.

"One thing the Task Force members have seen clearly is that cities that planned ahead and didn't sit idle are way ahead of the others, in terms of attracting arts, convention and entertainment business, and creating a competitive quality of life," Rice said in a statement.

"I can tell you part of our recommendation will be that the city start planning immediately and be shovel ready when the current economy turns around."

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