Plans for the Rupp District project should keep convention facilities within easy walking distance of downtown hotels and restaurants, while playing to Lexington's strengths as a convention destination, according to a focus group report unveiled Thursday.
Focus group members liked some aspects of three renovation concepts mentioned in a feasibility study, but they dismissed one as having "fatal flaws" and said all three have weaknesses.
Group members also said officials should move carefully in planning to renovate Rupp Arena and build a new Lexington Center, citing a "substantial risk" that the project could disrupt Lexington's existing, successful convention business.
Finally, they said, renovations should complement Lexington's convention strengths — hospitality, city-wide cooperation, walkability and cost-efficiency — while overcoming weaknesses including limited hotel and convention space.
The comments came from a focus group of 10 experienced convention and meeting planners who reviewed renovation ideas for the Rupp District last March at the invitation of the Bluegrass Hospitality Association. The report, mainly focusing on convention-related concerns, was presented to association members during their annual tourism luncheon Thursday at Lexington Center.
Rupp District consultant Stan Harvey called the report "important, up-front input." But he said he thought the presentation was misleading because the three design concepts discussed are from a feasibility study and are not final.
"You would imply that one of these will be selected, when that isn't the case at all," Harvey said after Tuesday's meeting. "The feasibility study is not meant to be a final design. It was meant to tease out what are the important factors for a successful convention center."
The value of having meeting planners review the feasibility study "was to get their input on success factors," according to Harvey. "Those are what we want to include in the new convention center," he said.
With boosting Lexington's convention business the main focus of the discussion, Bill Marshall, assistant general manager of the Inn on Broadway, said in an interview that increasing the number of hotel rooms downtown will be crucial.
"We are missing an entire tier of conventions because we don't have enough hotel rooms within walking distance of the convention center," Marshall said. "Having a third downtown hotel on the CentrePointe block will take Lexington to the next level of conventions."
Marshall didn't specify a location for a new convention center, saying the driving force that brings business to his hotel is University of Kentucky basketball.
"What I'm really excited about is a new Rupp Arena," he said. "We really needed that."
Planning for the Rupp District Project is expected to cost $5.5 million, including $2.5 million each from the Urban County Government and the state, plus $500,000 from the Lexington Center Corp. and the Convention & Visitors Bureau.
All three design concepts discussed in Tuesday's report call for razing the current convention center, "freeing" Rupp Arena to be a stand-alone structure. A new convention space would be built somewhere near Rupp and the Hyatt Regency Hotel.
One concept calls for moving the convention center to the existing High Street Parking Lot. That's the plan the focus group liked best. Another plan, which the group dismissed, would put convention facilities close to Triangle Park; while the third showed the facilities on Main Street closer to the Mary Todd Lincoln House.
Martha DeReamer, president of The Matrix Group, a Lexington marketing research firm that worked with the hospitality association focus group, said group members repeatedly emphasized the importance of keeping convention facilities within a five to 10-minute walk of hotels and restaurants. Providing a larger ballroom, more meeting rooms, and improving access would be other important factors in any renovation, she said.
But DeReamer also said it was apparent to the focus group members that expanding Rupp Arena and making it more visually attractive is the true "driving force behind the project."