The University of Kentucky has said it will meet tomorrow's deadline to say what its role will be in the proposed renovation of Rupp Arena, the city-owned facility in downtown Lexington where UK's men's basketball team plays.
UK's reluctance to openly support this project is puzzling.
The university has been publicly yearning for a new, or better, arena for decades. In late 2010, Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart gave up on the idea of building a privately financed arena, saying the problem was now "in the hands of the city."
Mayor Jim Gray took up that challenge in 2011, appointing a task force that included four UK representatives. That led ultimately to the proposal for an arts and entertainment district with a renewed, state-of-the-art Rupp at its center.
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Lending support to an effort UK has encouraged and participated in will not be an indication that UK President Eli Capilouto is diverting his laser-like focus on rebuilding the campus and improving undergraduate education.
It will signal that he accepts UK's role as a partner in creating an urban environment that attracts and inspires students, and an arena that allows the men's basketball program to realize its potential, economically and competitively.
Objections to the $351 million project to renovate Rupp and remove the convention center that encases the arena, building a larger one nearby, fall into two categories.
First is that arenas aren't good investments. The trouble with that argument is the arena is already there. Neighborhoods were cleared to build it in the 1970s, it has been a fixture downtown since, and it will remain there.
With that reality, the question is whether the facility is a civic asset that's performing up to its potential. The answer is clearly no.
In Rupp, fans complain about everything from the lack of chair backs in the upper arena to poor cell service, to long treks to concessions and restrooms. For those who can afford them, there are no pricey suites to entertain guests.
Similar issues arise for the convention center. Despite a renovation a decade ago, it too has serious limitations. And, the retail and restaurant court in the combined Rupp/convention center has never generated the revenue originally anticipated.
The other objections center on financing. The proposal, hammered out with UK and others over months, boils down to this:
■ Lexington would put up $40 million or about 11 percent of the project cost.
■ The state would invest $80 million, or 22 percent.
■ UK fans would contribute $35 million.
■ UK's annual lease of $10.7 million, with income from naming rights, conventions and other attractions, would pay for the rest of the project.
State and local governments often make investments like this. For example, the legislature put $75 million, or 21 percent, into Louisville's Yum Center a few years back, and this past session approved $56 million for Louisville's convention center.
Rupp project manager Frank Butler pointed out that the state paid 100 percent of recent expansion at the Northern Kentucky Convention Center.
Typically there's a thorough vetting process before public funds are committed. Understandably, the legislature balked while UK remained, at least publicly, on the sidelines.
That put the project back at least a year, a delay that will inevitably increase costs. Plus, the uncertainty is taking a toll on future convention bookings and the millions they could bring to Central Kentucky.
Next month, the Urban County Council will consider the request for $40 million; in the next legislative session, Lexington will return to ask again for $80 million.
When that happens, UK needs to be an enthusiastic part of the team backing this project.