New locker rooms are part of $2.9 million Rupp project that Calipari initiated

bfortune@herald-leader.comMarch 19, 2012 

The next time the University of Kentucky Wildcats play in Rupp Arena, they are likely to have a brand-new locker room that is part of an approximately $2.9 million renovation initiated by coach John Calipari.

Calipari already has commitments of $2.5 million from private donors, and the remaining $400,000 would come from the capital reserve fund of the Lexington Center Corp., said Bill Owen, president and chief executive of Lexington Center.

Donations to pay for the work will be made by individuals to the Blue Grass Community Foundation, which declined Monday to name the donors. UK referred questions about the donors to the foundation.

The board of Lexington Center Corp. approved the project last week. It would expand the men's basketball team's locker room; improve the training room to add hydro-therapy treatment whirlpools; add a medical room with an X-ray machine; and add a team meeting room, another coach's office, a team lounge and food service area, and a new press area.

"It's about a lot more than the UK dressing room," Owen said.

Four other athletic locker rooms would be upgraded, and eight small dressing rooms would be converted into four large ones for a wide range of performers who play Rupp, from rock stars to Disney on Ice skaters.

A new second floor mezzanine for storage will be built on the west side of Rupp Arena.

Calipari instigated the overhaul in mid-January when he and Cecil Dunn, president of the Lexington Center board, met with Owen for the coach to share his vision of an expansion and upgrade to the locker room area.

Owen said he had no inkling of what was coming when he received Dunn's phone call asking Owen to meet with Calipari in the team's briefing room. "It wasn't something on our radar at that moment," he said.

Calipari picked up a pen and sketched on a dry-erase board, Owen said. "While he's not an architect, he had some very clear ideas of what he wanted to see in the UK portion of the project."

The overhaul has its roots in a similar project Calipari initiated while at the University of Memphis.

When the Blue Grass Community Foundation receives the donations to pay for the project, it will in turn make a grant of $2.5 million to Lexington Center.

Capital expenditures of $50,000 or more will go to Lexington Center's capital maintenance committee for review.

Lisa Adkins, president and CEO of Bluegrass Community Foundation, said the organization doesn't release the names of donors "unless the donor wishes to be acknowledged."

On Monday, UK President Eli Capilouto, Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart and Calipari issued a joint statement:

"We are appreciative of the vote by the Lexington Center Board to move forward with construction of new locker and training room facilities at Rupp Arena for next season.

"This move — financed through private donations — will address some immediate needs of our players and the athletics programs. Additionally, these plans include back-of-house upgrades to serve the generous donors to UK athletics that help fund all 22 sports programs."

The statement also said: "We are confident that this project can be incorporated into any long-term plans being developed for the Arena and Downtown Entertainment District by Mayor Jim Gray and his team.

"This action further bolsters our partnership with the downtown community."

Earlier this year, Capilouto said his main focus would be on campus infrastructure, including building new dormitories and improving classrooms, and that he would not lobby the legislature for state funds to renovate Rupp Arena.

University spokesman Jay Blanton said Monday that Capilouto was referring only to competition for "scarce state operating dollars." The UK administration fully supports Calipari's private fund-raising for locker room improvements at Rupp, Blanton said.

Blanton said that Barnhart and Calipari "have always said this is a student-first, player-first institution and athletics program. Renovations to the locker rooms and a training room are a critical piece of the focus."

Calipari's ideas prompted Lexington Center officials to look at updating the rest of the 20,000-square foot dressing room area in Rupp Area, which looks much the same as it did when the arena opened in 1976, except for some redecoration completed in 2003, Owen said.

The area looks dated and austere, with concrete-block walls, low acoustical tile ceilings and industrial-quality fluorescent lights.

Asked whether Calipari was OK with raising money to pay for improvements to areas outside the immediate UK locker room, Owen said he was.

Having an up-to-date, bright, functional locker room area with modern equipment and a place for players to relax and talk will be a positive for Calipari's recruiting efforts, Owen said.

"It's important to have top-notch facilities to recruit top-notch players," he said.

In addition to the Wildcats' locker room, the renovation will upgrade space for four additional athletic teams when a double-header basketball tournament is scheduled, such as for the Sweet 16 or the NCAA regionals.

"Enhancing and refreshing this area will help us sustain our vitality with the NCAA," Owen said. An opening round of the NCAA tournament will be held in Lexington next March, and UK wants to bid on other tournaments.

The proposed modifications to Rupp are in keeping with recommendations in the final report from the Arena, Arts and Entertainment Task Force.

"Basically, we are getting a 36-year-old section of the building upgraded," Owen said. "It's definitely a win for Lexington Center. It gives significant improvement to the Lexington Center that we would not, otherwise, have money to do."

Asked whether the improvements would give momentum to the proposed major overhaul of Rupp by the arts and entertainment task force, Owen said he did not know.

But, he said, "When or if something comes from the task force recommendation to renovate Rupp, these improvements will remain, regardless. They will not have to be redone. We are just getting a jump start on the project."

Under the most optimum time line, construction could begin in early June, Owen said. "I'm really most concerned with when it will be completed," he said, chuckling.

The first UK home game will be about the first of November. "Maybe every last thing won't be done by then, but we will be close," he said.

On Monday, Owen was writing a request for proposal for a project manager.

Beverly Fortune: (859) 231-3251. Twitter: @BFortune2010.

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