Herald-Leader Editorial

Moving ahead on Rupp project; needs financing details, more vocal support

April 17, 2014 

  • What do you think?

    What advice would you give Lexington Mayor Jim Gray on plans for a Rupp Arena entertainment district?

Lexington's plan to reinvent Rupp Arena and build a new convention center suffered a serious setback Tuesday night when the Kentucky Senate passed on Gov. Steve Beshear's proposal to include $80 million for the project in the state's budget.

That's unfortunate but it can't be the last word for this visionary project that promises to transform the west end of Lexington's downtown.

The legislature left the door open for future support, allocating $1.5 million, to be matched locally, to continue preparing for construction, and expressing its intent to advance the project with more funding perhaps as early as next year.

There has been a lot of carping the last few weeks, some of it deserved, that Lexington Mayor Jim Gray mishandled the politics in Frankfort by asking for support when the financing was still muddy, most notably the commitment of the lead tenant, the University of Kentucky Athletics Association.

There was also too much uncertainty about local support for the project.

Lexington deserves the state's support for this project, but Gray and other local leaders must return to Frankfort with more things nailed down. Among them:

■ A signed contract with UK. Ideally someone prominent from UK would join in making the case, but the contract is a must.

■ The Urban County Council's support for the project, including the $40 million in bonded debt Gray has requested. Payments would be about $2 million of the city's $300 million-plus annual spending plan.

■ Vocal support of a broad base of local leaders in business, economic development, hospitality and the legislative delegation.

It would also be good to have other pieces of the puzzle filled in, including how the proposed $35 million in fan support will be raised and a naming rights contract in hand.

We understand and sympathize with those who complain about basketball palaces taking precedence over education, decent housing and other vital needs.

But this is the reality:

1) University of Kentucky basketball is here to stay and it will be played at the city-owned Rupp Arena in downtown Lexington. The current 20-year lease is set to expire at the end of 2017.

2) The current blank-faced box housing both Rupp and the convention center, is dead on the outside and incomprehensible inside.

3) The convention center is outdated and too small to compete for many events, and Rupp's outdated features — including seats without backs, poor cell-phone reception, inadequate food service and restroom facilities and antiquated electronics — make it less desirable both to basketball fans and to promoters booking other acts.

These things taken together mean that Rupp Arena and the convention center will occupy a huge place in Lexington's future.

The question left to answer is whether they will be a credit to, or a drag on, our community.

Budget allocation on Rupp

From the state budget approved by the legislature and signed by Gov. Steve Beshear:

"It is the intent of the General Assembly to advance this project when all financing components of the project are identified, secured, and in the public domain. There are sufficient dollars in the Budget Reserve Trust Fund Account (KRS 48.705) to support debt service on any such project authorized by the General Assembly during the 2014-2016 fiscal biennium."

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