Ky. Voices: Rupp Arena great just the way it is

July 29, 2013 

  • At issue: July 11 Herald-Leader article, "Reinventors of Rupp hired; conceptual drawings expected before season starts"

Free Rupp? Never without a firm and fair financing plan.

Firm, in that the costs and revenue streams must be certain beyond a shadow of a doubt, nothing like Louisville's YUM Center, which is a financial disaster.

Fair, in that no new taxes are created — or already committed tax revenue diverted — to finance it. This especially means no additional sales taxes, which hit hardest on middle- and lower-income citizens. Fair also in that no funds are stolen from other crucial community or college needs.

But beyond mere financing there remains the larger issue of whether the whole project is something that should be done.

From day one the question was always framed as either redoing Rupp or building a new arena, not whether anything was necessary at all. But for argument's sake, let's pretend the whole Rupp Arena/downtown reinvention project was free, literally "free Rupp." Would it then be a good idea?

While I have since the day Rupp was built shared the mayor's sentiments about Rupp being a bland box, this is largely irrelevant. Everybody knows the excitement that bursts within. And vanilla exterior notwithstanding, Rupp is considered among the top venues for basketball just the way it is.

The associated creation of a dynamic zone of art and enterprise makes a stronger case, again if it were free. Against this free opportunity: Businesses will be forced to close or move; maintenance, property values, etc. will make Lexington an even more expensive place to live; social-service agencies like the Salvation Army might be affected negatively; and other unforeseen consequences are bound to occur.

As for the arena itself, well, at least Rupp would more nearly mirror America's socio-economic divide. Suites, clubs, luxury boxes will further separate the elite from the common fan and dissolve the bonds of unity.

This last point cannot be stressed enough: the essential and enduring strength of the Big Blue Nation is a united fan base stretching all across our great state. This unity is a uniquely Kentucky phenomenon admired countrywide. A reinvented walled-off Rupp will weaken that which makes us strong.

True, those in the upper decks might have nicer chair-back seats, but they will positively have to have binoculars per my experience at the YUM Center, and they will pay considerably more for the opportunity to squint and strain without them.

Then there is the question of need. Of course there is no such question, for there is absolutely no need to touch Rupp. Rupp is currently and consistently rated as one of the top arenas in the country. And everybody con veniently forgets that we spent nearly $60 million just a few years ago in a major upgrade.

But of course the Rupp/downtown reinvention is not free. The total cost projection is more than $300 million. Such projects routinely cost more than advertised, so it will likely end up being much more expensive. Worse, payoff schedules are presented as pie-in-the-sky come-ons geared to winning public approval.

While they have yet to say how they propose to pay for it, there is absolutely no doubt that we citizens will be on the hook. And unlike most government operations funded by taxes that go up in relation to income level, this kind of deal would likely be paid for with regressive tax schemes that weigh more heavily on the lower and middle class.

And where is the need?

Rupp is already a sterling venue, recently upgraded and still in debt. Other storied programs, like ones at the University of Kansas and Duke University, play in much older and smaller arenas considered landmark marquees. In fact, Kansas relishes its tradition and shuns any talk of luxury boxes or new facilities.

Fan passion, combined with Kentucky tradition, fuels success. If anything, we should be leveraging that for educational needs, not increasing debt for fancier facilities.

We must prevent a "keep up with the Joneses" psychosis from obscuring the qualities that truly make us great.


At issue: July 11 Herald-Leader article, "Reinventors of Rupp hired; conceptual drawings expected before season starts"

Richard Dawahare is a Lexington attorney.

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