Mark Story: Plans for Rupp 're-invention' are exciting, but show us the money

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistFebruary 10, 2014 

In a showy news conference replete with flashing lights and a slickly produced video, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray unveiled his plans Monday for a "reinvented" Rupp Arena.

Unlike the big barn attached to a shopping mall that is the current Rupp, the "reinvented" Rupp Arena would stand alone. It would have glass exteriors, chair-back seating for all, and modern amenities to include Wi-Fi throughout the arena, ribbon boards and a state-of-the-art scoreboard above the center-jump circle.

"If you look at that and aren't excited about that, well, c'mon," said Brent Rice, the chairman of the board of the Lexington Center, the entity that oversees the operations of Rupp Arena.

If we've learned anything from our friends in Louisville and the messy KFC Yum Center finances, it is that the devil is in the financing when it comes to arena projects.

So speaking as someone who thinks the aging Rupp Arena, especially its upper deck, needs an upgrade, I'll tell you when I will get excited: when city officials release a detailed financing plan to indicate how the $310 million project, which will include a new convention center and other downtown enhancements, will be paid for.

Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, on hand to tout the $65 million in general fund-supported bonds that he has requested the state legislature approve for the Rupp project, ended his remarks by saying he is confident the renovation would get done.

"I am going to make sure that it does," Beshear said.

Gray, who has two opponents for re-election, has essentially staked his mayoralty on the idea that a new Rupp Arena Arts and Entertainment District can reshape downtown Lexington.

Rice, an attorney and a formidable behind-the-scenes figure in Kentucky sports circles for decades, also has major skin in the "reinvented Rupp Arena" game after having led the original task force that looked at the venue's future.

Bottom line: Three powerful Kentucky figures have too much credibility invested in this project now not to make it happen. Still, until there is a financing plan in place, there's no real way to gauge whether the current proposals are sound.

The goal revealed Monday is for the entire Rupp Arena and convention center projects to be done by fall 2017. "For that schedule, construction begins in first quarter of 2015," Gray said.

I asked what the drop-dead date was to have the financing pinned down for that 2017 opening date to become reality. "Ask me that question in another 60 days," Rice said.

Posed the same question, Gray said that for a 2017 opening of a reinvented Rupp, the financing plan would have to be in place "by midyear, early fall, 2014. And we're on that path,'' the mayor said.

We did learn a couple of tidbits Monday about the plans for financing a renovated Rupp Arena. Rice said that tax increment financing — using the increase in tax revenue that occurs in the vicinity of a new venue to help pay off the project — would be part of the Rupp plan.

In Louisville, TIF has not yet come close to reaching the projections it was expected to produce toward helping to pay off Yum Center bonds. "We will be careful, very, very careful, not to expect too much revenue too soon," Rice said.

Meanwhile, even if naming rights are sold to help pay for the reinvented arena, Adolph Rupp's surname would remain part of the venue's name, Rice said.

Continuing what has seemed UK's at-arms-distance stance toward the Rupp Arena project, neither University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto nor Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart attended Monday's news conference. DeWayne Peevy, a Barnhart assistant, was there.

Asked Monday on an SEC teleconference his opinion of the Rupp plans, John Calipari said he is not involved. "I'm anxiously awaiting to see how it all plays out," the UK coach said. "There are good people on all sides trying to make a good thing happen."

Alluding to the private money he raised to upgrade the UK locker room in Rupp to something of NBA-level plushness, Calipari said "We re-did the locker room. If the rest of the arena is done to the level of that, it'll be one of the nicest in the world."

The plans unveiled Monday would make Rupp Arena into a gold-standard basketball palace. Whether doing that is worthwhile will not be clear until the public is shown how the project will be paid for.

Herald-Leader staff writer Jerry Tipton contributed to this article. Mark Story: (859) 231-3230.Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com.

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