Lexington Mayor Jim Gray urged legislative leaders Wednesday to support a $265 million medical research building at the University of Kentucky, suggesting they use $1.5 million that had been designated for his now-stalled plan to renovate Rupp Arena.
In a letter dated Feb. 4, Gray set aside differences with Lexington's largest employer over the best use of state funds for public buildings.
"I agree that it is a compelling project that will provide an inflection level of competitive advantage at a time when UK's research strengths are achieving national recognition," Gray wrote to Senate President Robert Stivers and House Speaker Greg Stumbo.
Last winter, Gray initially requested $65 million in state money to renovate Rupp Arena and relocate the Lexington Convention Center. UK President Eli Capilouto did not support the plan, saying he was worried that legislators would give UK less for other building projects if they funded Rupp.
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Lawmakers ultimately shelved the proposal, instead setting aside $1.5 million for further design work on the Rupp Arena project.
"Since that project is now on hold, I would like to respectfully suggest that, if you consider it appropriate and needed, those funds be applied instead to fund the medical research facility," Gray wrote.
His letter arrived in Frankfort the same day a bill was filed to set aside money for the research center.
Rep. Rick Rand, D-Bedford, introduced a bill that would use state bonding authority to pay for half of the $265 million research building. UK would raise the other half privately.
The bill authorizes $132.5 million in bonds but clarifies that no state funding shall be used for operation or maintenance of the building.
UK officials have been pushing for state funding for the building for several years but said they were surprised when Stivers suggested reopening the state's two-year budget to find money for the project.
Stivers said Tuesday that he welcomed Gray's suggestion.
"It won't hurt, put it that way," he said. "Anything like that is gonna help, any show of support from the community helps make a case for it."
Approval of funding for the center, which would sit along South Limestone near the College of Pharmacy, would require support from 60 percent of lawmakers in both legislative chambers in this year's "short," or 30-day, legislative session. The state budget usually is considered during the 60-day sessions held in even-numbered years.
Opening the state's two-year budget this year likely would lead to other budget debates and requests, but Stivers said he's heard of no opposition to the UK project itself. There has been isolated criticism of reopening the state budget, Stivers said, but that was only a discussion about process.
In a statement, Stumbo said now was a good time to invest in projects that would create jobs, including a renovation of Rupp Arena.
"My position remains that the market is favorable for construction, and we know bids are very competitive," Stumbo said in a statement. "It will cost more if we wait to do Rupp Arena, so I hope those who may vote for a $135 million research building for UK will keep that in mind."
UK spokesman Jay Blanton said the university appreciated Gray's support and his understanding "of the inextricable link between the futures of our hometown and the university."
Relations between Gray and Capilouto were strained during last year's negotiations, but they have warmed publicly in recent months. Capilouto attended Gray's inauguration, and Gray praised Capilouto numerous times during his state of the city speech in January.
"The university and the city have a strong partnership. Nothing has changed in that regard," Blanton said Wednesday. "We work together on countless projects. It would be a mistake to view that important relationship through the prism of one issue."
Gray said he hoped his encouragement of the research center might foster cooperation on future projects.
"As we move forward, my hope is to build a consensus resolution with UK, local, and state leaders regarding the future of Rupp Arena and the Lexington Center, with steps to build that consensus beginning in the near future," Gray wrote.
Jamie Emmons, Gray's chief of staff, said there was no specific time line for when the city would return to the legislature seeking money for Rupp Arena.
"We plan to gauge interest in the Lexington Center project and determine if the time is right," Emmons said.
Emmons said Gray decided to send the letter Wednesday so lawmakers were clear on where the city stands.
"Today is day six of a 30-day session," Emmons said. "Mayor Gray felt it was important to highlight UK's medical research facility as a top priority before the legislature officially considers the university's request."
Capilouto has envisioned the research building, full of laboratories and research space for sociologists, public health experts and others who work to prevent and stop disease, as a major weapon in the war against Kentucky's appalling health statistics.