Mark Story: When it comes to Rupp Arena, a house divided against itself cannot renovate

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMay 22, 2014 

UK president Eli Capilouto spoke during the University of Kentucky Board of Trustees annual retreat Friday, held in the President's Room at Commonwealth Stadium.

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Abraham Lincoln famously opined that a house divided against itself cannot stand. As a modern corollary, I would suggest an arena renovation plan divided against itself cannot get done.

The long-simmering tensions between the city of Lexington and the administration of University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto over the attempts to find funding to renovate Rupp Arena and build a new downtown convention center exploded to the surface Thursday.

In a biting, almost condescending, letter from Capilouto to Lexington Center Chairman Brent Rice, the UK president opined "there is not sufficient support for committing over $350 million in state, city and other funds to a basketball arena and convention center when there are so many well-recognized educational, economic, retirement and health care needs across Lexington and the commonwealth of Kentucky."

Last month, after the Kentucky Senate refused to approve $80 million in funding for the Rupp Arena/convention center project, I wrote that the city of Lexington and UK had to get on the same page before there was any hope of moving forward.

So much for that.

Capilouto's letter, first reported by the Kentucky Sports Radio blog, was in response to one Rice had previously written to ask the university to more vigorously embrace in public the Rupp Arena project in order to help the city solidify financing.

So much for that.

As a political matter, the UK president is now out in the open disparaging a project that Lexington Mayor Jim Gray and Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear have both been touting as a key to the future of economic development in Fayette County.

In February, Beshear vowed in a news conference with Gray that the Rupp renovation would get done. "I'm going to make sure that it does," the governor said.

Historically, UK presidents do not have a real strong win/loss record when they get into public disputes with governors — who appoint the members of the board of trustees, who in turn have the ability to hire and fire university presidents.

With Beshear leaving office in 2015, maybe Capilouto figures he can wait him out.

On merit, the UK president is right in his letter on two big points. The attempts by Rice and Gray to put a financing plan in place to allow the Rupp Arena project to go forward have been in a constant state of flux. That has made it all but impossible to evaluate the viability of their proposals.

Capilouto is also correct that the $35 million budgeted in the final plan that was to be raised from UK fan contributions seems wildly over-optimistic, almost an example of magical thinking (or accounting).

Yet it is disingenuous for UK to claim that its publicly arms-length stance toward the Rupp project — no visible support in public from the Kentucky athletics director, head men's basketball coach or university president — has not made it more difficult for the city to get financing in place.

It is also understandable why Lexington officials are beyond frustrated by UK's new-found lack of ardor for a major Rupp Arena upgrade. As far back as the 1990s, then-Kentucky coach Rick Pitino was calling for a new on-campus arena for Wildcats basketball.

As recently as 2010, current UK AD Mitch Barnhart was working with the sports marketing firm IMG to privately finance a new downtown arena. When that effort failed, Barnhart all but called out the city of Lexington, saying a new UK arena "was in the hands of the city."

Under Gray, the city took up that effort — only to see the university turn lukewarm-to-hostile toward the attempt.

What changed, of course, is that Capilouto assumed the UK presidency in 2011. He has repeatedly stated that his priorities involve upgrading the academic and student housing infrastructure on the UK campus.

I'm not going to criticize any university president for that.

However, I remain skeptical that money not invested in the Rupp Arena project by the state of Kentucky will ever end up available to UK for its on-campus priorities.

Meanwhile, city officials and the governor may need to face a hard reality of their own. At some point, the amount of concrete financing you can put in place has to define the scope of your building plans, not the other way around.

When it comes to the Rupp Arena renovation, that point now seems very near.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com.

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