For Lexington mayor Jim Gray, a highlight of Friday's fact-finding trip to Indianapolis came during lunch. That's when two young professionals talked about the Indiana capital's Wholesale District, which contains Conseco Fieldhouse, an expanded convention center and a three-block row of restaurants, bars and entertainment options.
Vince Pegan and Matt Compton noted how their families' move to the Wholesale District would help it reach the goal of doubling its residential population in the next 10 years. Message received: the Wholesale District was a place to work and play and live.
Gray's eyes widened as he thought of his dreams for a similar district revitalizing downtown Lexington.
"This project gives us the opportunity to engage this economic model," he said. "It's all about creating a gravitational pull."
Of course, no entity tugs stronger on the hearts and minds in the Bluegrass State than University of Kentucky basketball. So whether it be a renovated Rupp Arena or a new facility, UK basketball figures prominently in Lexington's planning.
Gray led a group to Indianapolis that included such civic leaders as attorney Brent Rice, who heads a task force looking into what might be in an arena district in Lexington; UK Executive Vice President Frank Butler; builder Ray Ball; Urban Active CEO Royce Pulliam; and Hyatt General Manager Larry Bell. As on a trip Gray took to Columbus with another group this month, the idea was to see another city's vision.
"There is no plan that replaces actually getting out and walking the site," Gray said.
Lexington has more space (46 acres) to develop than Indianapolis (30 acres). Gray saw this as a benefit and burden.
"It means we have to do a really good job of illustrating the options," he said. "...That's what the public expects."
When asked whether the trip to Indianapolis served to show the public that Lexington's leaders want to fully explore the options, Gray said, "Absolutely."
Since the lease on playing in Rupp Arena expires in 2018, Option One to ponder has to be the future home of UK basketball. In a meeting Tuesday, UK officials told the task force what they wanted. That might have included a new arena rather than a renovation — or to use the term Gray and Rice prefer, re-invention — of Rupp. Gray said he did not know the specifics of UK's wish list. Rice declined to divulge those wishes.
"Kentucky basketball is the customer the project must satisfy," Gray said, "and it's appropriate they would be very demanding. They have a great program. They need to be and deserve to be demanding."
UK's demands raise the challenge to have a good plan, Gray said.
During a tour of Conseco Fieldhouse, which opened in 1999, the group briefly looked into a store stocked with Indiana Pacers memorabilia. "What UK wants to see," said Stan Harvey, a manager of the Lexington project.
William Browne, Jr., founder of the Indianapolis-based architectural firm that designed the Wholesale District, recommended keeping the attractions condensed. "One block can make a huge difference," he said.
As Gray's group heard in Columbus, other keys include sprinkling adequate parking throughout the district and surrounding area, plus making each element visibly accessible to nearby district features.
Although Indianapolis demolished Market Square Arena and the RCA Dome to make way for Conseco Fieldhouse and Lucas Oil Stadium, Browne said he preferred renovation over new construction.
"If you can re-use, do it,' he said. "No question. Environmentally, you're saving an asset, and you're saving an investment already made."
Browne added that a renovation would not perfectly meet needs and expectations.
When asked about Browne's comment, Gray said, "He's saying, 'Look carefully at what you've got before you tear something down. Think of the history, the legacy. Think of the magic in the bottle.' If you're going to re-create and repackage, you have to do that carefully as well."
The trips to Columbus and Indianapolis were about proceeding carefully. Indianapolis paid $183 million to build Conseco Fieldhouse and spent an additional $275 million in expanding its Indiana Convention Center, Browne said. The three blocks of entertainment options on Georgia Street, much of which is still under construction, cost $12 million.
"Good management is about good planning," Gray said, "and good planning is about exhausting the options. There's always some level of adjustment and compromise in that process. And I mean compromise in the sense of adjustment, not diminished expectations or diminished outcomes."