Debate over downtown reshaping mayor's race. Rupp, convention center plans need full airing

May 31, 2014 

The mayoral race between incumbent Jim Gray and challenger Anthany Beatty threatens to become a lively contest now that University of Kentucky president Eli Capilouto has hurled a bombshell into town-gown negotiations over funding for the Rupp Arena and convention center renovation project. And well it should.

Refusing to be made the fall guy in the blame game started after the state legislature failed to pony up $80 million toward funding the project, Capilouto pushed back with a sharp critique of the Gray administration's financial plan, including a veiled threat to consider other options for basketball games.

Turnabout is fair play, given that Gray had criticized the Webb Companies for failing to release a credible financial package for CentrePointe. The Rupp financial model, as Capilouto and others point out, seems to rest on shaky grounds and questionable premises.

For example, the expected $35 million from fan donors seems extravagant and would likely cut into support from prospective high-roller contributors for campus construction.

Another troubling feature of the project is that many downtown businesses — overwhelmingly small businesses — would likely suffer during the 18-month to two-year construction. The litany of promises of jobs needs to be balanced against existing jobs that may be in jeopardy. It also needs to be weighed against the kind of jobs likely to be generated.

Citizen buy-in will be crucial over the coming months. After the Capilouto letter was publicized, I heard a rising buzz of criticism of this project among people (usually male, often retired) who complained that the renovation was not going to actually lead to any increase in arena seating. While the prospect of adding seat backs in the nosebleed section was appreciated, the huge investment without increasing seating capacity struck many of these aging UK fans as a false bill of goods.

Finally, there is the issue of opportunity costs. Granted, the full cost of the project would not otherwise be available for other worthy programs. Still the amount the city would need to ante up might better go to quality-of-life needs that would spread their bounty more broadly.

The community group, BUILD, has continued to press government for support for affordable housing.

The effort to connect farms to downtown and other city restaurants as part of fashioning a vibrant regional food economy will only become more compelling as the effects of climate change impact the food supply chain. Investing fully in these and other programs would cost only a fraction of the downtown project's estimated bill.

Project planners and proponents may have good answers to these concerns. I am only saying that citizens deserve a serious opportunity to hear competing claims, weigh the pluses and minuses and then use their votes to register support or opposition to a project that would change the face of Lexington's center city, for good or ill.

Ernie Yanarella is a community activist who has taught at the University of Kentucky for 43 years.

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