Three candidates vying for Lexington's top job disagreed Thursday on whether a proposed $351 million redesign of Rupp Arena and convention center should proceed and what should be done about crime.
Mayor Jim Gray told more than 100 people who attended the Lexington Forum mayoral forum Thursday morning that the Rupp project is largely about creating a better and more livable downtown and creating jobs.
"This is all about being competitive," Gray said. "This project is all about creating jobs."
Thursday's forum was held at the University of Kentucky's Boone Center and was the first public forum featuring Gray, the incumbent mayor, and challengers Anthany Beatty and Danny Mayer. The top two vote-getters in the May 20 primary will move on to the November election in the nonpartisan mayoral race.
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Gray, who was elected in 2010, said that Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, has generated more than 10,000 jobs since it was built in 2000 and is generating more than $20 million in revenues for the city.
But Mayer, an English professor, and Beatty, a former Lexington police chief and an administrator at UK, questioned whether city money should be spent on the project and whether more study on arenas and arena development should be conducted before the project moves forward.
Mayer, who teaches at Bluegrass Community and Technical College, said he wasn't convinced that the convention center needs to be expanded. Lexington is not Cincinnati or Louisville; it does not have direct flights necessary to lure bigger conventions.
"Even conservative economists don't look at arena development as anything that generates value for a community," he said.
Mayer said the KFC Yum Center has run into financial problems because the financial projections for the project were off. The city of Columbus bought Nationwide Arena in 2012 because the previous owners struggled to pay for it, he said.
"I think what we need to do is go back and revisit our discussions about Rupp and have a real discussion on what we want to put our money into," Mayer said.
Beatty said the city has to look at the amount of debt payments it has and whether $40 million in city bonds, which would work out to an estimated $2.4 million a year, is appropriate. Gray has proposed using a combination of city and state funding and fan support in addition to increased revenues to pay for the $351 million project.
"We need to slow this process down just a little bit," Beatty said. "We need to bring all the people to the table who are impacted."
Gray said both the convention center and Rupp Arena are old and need to be replaced. If the city doesn't do it, it won't continue to grow. The plan is forward-thinking, he argued.
"Rupp is an extraordinary example of public-private partnerships," Gray later said in response to a question about such partnerships.
More than 50 percent of the funding will come from private sources, Gray said. That includes $35 million in fan support, and UK's athletic department will pay approximately $8 million each year for 30 years.
But Mayer said calling UK a private partner is "crazy."
"The University of Kentucky is a public institution," he said.
The University of Kentucky athletic department, however, is self-supporting through its own revenue and private donations.
"I don't see it as forward-thinking," Mayer said of the Rupp. "Arena developments have been a loser and cities are starting to move away from that."
The candidates also differed on crime and crime statistics. Beatty was the city's police chief from 2001 to 2007.
During the forum, Gray touted crime statistics showing that Lexington's crime rates have decreased and that Lexington is safer than other cities of similar size.
The mayor said residents probably "don't want to hear that Lexington's crime is down 7.8 percent year to year" if there is crime in their neighborhood. Or that "Lexington, compared to cities our size, is 26 percent below cities of our size. But those are the facts."
Gray said the city has had four police recruit classes since he took office, and no police or fire personnel were laid off during the recession.
But Beatty said it's impossible to determine the city's crime rate, because the reporting of those crime statistics has changed.
"About three years ago, the way those crime stats were reported was changed," Beatty said. "We have regressed in that area. In 2004 to 2007, we were one of the safest cities in the country ... because of some of the proactive things we were doing."
Beatty said there are fewer police officers on the street than when he was chief. And he said that more officers were working in communities to address gang violence and drugs.
Gray countered that while police chief, Beatty passed on a nationally recognized community policing program that is to be implemented by the department.
Beatty said the department decided not to implement the program during his tenure because the department was already doing the same thing.
The candidates also discussed other issues, including job creation and retention, and climate change. A second forum has been scheduled for May 12.