John Clay: Rupp renovation unpopular because it's unnecessary

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMay 24, 2014 

Designs released Feb. 10 showed renovations that were proposed for Rupp Arena and the Lexington Convention Center.

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Let's get to the bottom line: There is simply not enough support for the Rupp Arena renovation project, and with good reason.

A $350 million renovation isn't needed.

That's why there's not enough support from the state legislature, which turned down the project's request for $80 million in state funding.

That's why there's not enough support from the public, 75 percent of which in a recent poll said Lexington should fund the project, not the state.

And that's why there's not enough support from UK, which has other, better priorities than gussying up a perfectly good Rupp.

UK President Eli Capilouto might have raised some eyebrows, but he was on target with his strongly worded letter to Lexington Center Corporation chairman Brent Rice this past week that outlined why the university has not publicly supported the initiative and why he objects to the LCC blaming UK for failing to acquire state funding.

The key passage in Capilouto's letter: "First, my highest priority has been and will continue to be the transformation of our University's infrastructure. We therefore consistently requested state investment in academic and research space on our campus equal to or greater than the state's investment in Rupp Arena."

There is only so much money to go around.

Money has been the sticking point in the Rupp saga all along. Renovation proponents hoped it would wow the public with dazzling graphics outlining just how wonderful a new Rupp Arena and retail complex would look. Funding would follow.

Instead, the rollout hasn't produced the public gushing expected. The general reaction has been, "Sure, it all looks nice, but at what cost? And is it needed?"

No, it's not needed.

Since John Calipari became coach five years ago, the basketball team has won a national title, reached two NCAA Tournament title games and three Final Fours. The current Rupp Arena doesn't appear to be hurting him one bit.

This isn't just about basketball, argues Mayor Jim Gray. It's about economic development. Yet the type of downtown complex the mayor envisions generates a "this would be nice" response rather than a "we have to have this."

In these times of deep budget cuts to essential services, dumping $350 million into an unnecessary project with debatable benefits isn't going to fly. This community and state have much more important financial needs.

And let's be honest, if it wasn't for Louisville building the KFC Yum Center in 2010, we wouldn't be having these discussions. Lexington experienced arena-envy.

And the subsequent financial difficulties that have beset the Yum Center have served as a cautionary tale.

But let's get back to UK's square one.

Capilouto wasn't just forceful in his letter, he was correct. After years of campus neglect, the school needs to do everything it can to rebuild and improve academic facilities and resources. The debate over a renovated Rupp Arena isn't a help to that cause, it's a distraction.

A few years ago, I helped move my oldest son into the same Kirwan Tower where I lived in 1978 and the rooms had not changed one bit. Three years ago, during UK freshman orientation for my youngest son, I sat in the Whitehall Classroom Building and read wall graffiti that appeared to have been first scrawled there when I was a student.

Where past presidents have failed, Capilouto has made tangible infrastructure progress, even if it has meant using unusual and controversial means such as private enterprise. There's plenty more left to do.

Do we really want a future in which a prospective student visits the UK campus and says, "To be honest with you, it looks pretty rundown."

"Yeah," we'll say, "but have you seen our basketball arena?"

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com.

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