Lexington officials will entrust the much-discussed re-invention of Rupp Arena to an architectural firm that guided a sweeping renovation of UCLA's iconic Pauley Pavilion, and a construction company that built arguably the NBA's reigning state-of-the-art facility: the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
Meeting Wednesday morning, the Lexington Center Corporation Board of Directors named the Seattle-based architectural firm NBBJ to design the Rupp Arena renovation, as well as the new Lexington Convention Center.
To do the building, directors picked Indianapolis-based Hunt Construction Group Inc., the company that completed Rupp Arena back in 1976. A local firm, Abel Construction Co., and minority owned Finch Contractors Inc. will assist Hunt.
Rupp District Project Director Frank Butler said officials hope to have conceptual drawings of the project by early October. Initial schematic plans and cost estimates are expected by Nov. 1.
Initial project payments will include about $300,000 to Hunt for assistance in developing schematics, and almost $3 million to NBBJ for creating schematics, officials said.
Previously mentioned cost projections have put the convention center rebuild at $110 million, with the Rupp renovation costing $140 million to $150 million.
"We are selecting the best talent in the world to improve and elevate and make more competitive our brand," Lexington Mayor Jim Gray said of Wednesday's hires.
Gray and other officials said that updating Rupp and the Lexington Convention Center would create excitement, business investment and dollars for Lexington and the state as a whole.
Amid the excitement, however, there was a cautionary note from the University of Kentucky, a prime beneficiary of an updated Rupp.
While UK officials have pledged to be partners in the Rupp renovation, they have contended that state dollars for campus construction should take precedence over Rupp. The worry, they've argued, is that funding Rupp improvements when state dollars are scarce inevitably would limit funding for ongoing campus projects.
"We believe, along with Mayor Gray, that the future of UK and Lexington are inextricably linked," said Eric Monday, UK's vice president for finance and administration.
Monday, who attended the news conference on the hiring of Hunt and NBBJ, said UK continues to "have productive discussions with all the partners involved about downtown and the role of the university.
"At the same time, we must continue to balance that partnership with the goals of the university ... Our top priority continues to be revitalizing our campus infrastructure to enhance the quality of the education, research and service we provide for Lexington and the Commonwealth."
Groundbreaking ceremonies are scheduled for the fall of 2014, if advance work goes smoothly.
Lexington Center Board Chairman Brent Rice said Wednesday afternoon that the project could be built in two years, without disrupting ball games or other events.
NBBJ and Hunt bring plenty of experience in building sports venues. NBBJ, which will work with the Lexington-based EOP Architects on the Rupp project, designed the $136 million renovation of Pauley Pavilion. It also worked on such facilities as the Los Angeles Lakers' Staples Center, the Seattle Mariners' Safeco Field and Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati.
Hunt has built the Orlando Magic's Amway Center, the Charlotte Bobcats' Time Warner Cable Arena, the Indianapolis Colts' Lucas Oil Stadium and the St. Louis Cardinals' Busch Stadium.
A subcommittee of the LCC board interviewed four architectural firms and five construction companies before recommending NBBJ and Hunt.
"It's fair to say they were the most creative in how we get to where the mayor wants to get to," Butler said.
Gray's preferred term of "re-invention" rather than "renovation" captures how he envisions a new Rupp Arena. It would stand as an eye-catching centerpiece in a rejuvenated downtown Lexington. It would be the landmark for an eclectic arts and entertainment district. The mayor spoke recently of the need to "free Rupp" from its current state as a beige box invisible from Main Street. From the Vine Street perspective, it's a don't-blink-or-you'll-miss-it structure.
Officials repeatedly stressed Wednesday that plans for Rupp and the Convention Center will tie in with plans for Town Branch Commons, the new park that would run through downtown.
Gray wants to "liberate Rupp so you can see it," he said. "There's no iconic image from the air or from the ground. There's nothing from outside to celebrate or elevate."
Inside, of course, Rupp Arena has served since 1976 as the home for University of Kentucky basketball. In announcing the firms that will guide the proposed renovation, LCC noted how the "revitalized" Rupp will have private suites, a new scoreboard hanging above center court, and chair-back seats throughout the upper as well as lower levels.
It remains to be seen how Lexington intends to pay for the re-invention as well as the 46-acre arts and entertainment district.
Gov. Steve Beshear said at a news conference Wednesday afternoon that he'll approach leaders of the General Assembly before the next session to seek assistance for the project.
Butler spoke of presenting a plan to finance the project at the August meeting of the Lexington Center Corp. Board. He said there's been a "very positive" response to several fundraising ideas floated in an ongoing survey of fans and corporations: luxury suites, private clubs and a lounge, loge boxes, tax increases and what board chairman Rice calls a True Blue Membership. The latter might consist of fans buying shares in the Rupp re-invention (for an initial fee of $300, plus an additional charge of $100 each year, according to the survey), thus becoming eligible for an undetermined prize in a weekly lottery.
Bill Rhoda, president of Conventions, Sports & Leisure International (one of the firms helping local government determine how to pay for the project), said survey responses were taken from 2 percent of Lexington's population (305,489, according to U.S. census data). Of those respondents, 55 percent supported True Blue Membership idea, he said.
As for fundraising, Rhoda said his company also has studied the number of suites, loge boxes and clubs that could go inside the arena.
Gray and Butler downplayed the chances of a sales tax increase, likening the difficulty of enacting such a measure to passing a constitutional amendment. But NBBJ apparently impressed the LCC Board with "not only the vision for design, but their ideas for driving new revenue," Rice said.
Lexington officials began looking to re-invent Rupp Arena in late 2010, shortly after UK abandoned its hope of a partnership with IMG World, one of its corporate sponsors, in building a new downtown arena that would pay for itself in revenues generated by the facility and nearby businesses.
Gray formed a task force in early 2011 to look into making a new Rupp the centerpiece in a new downtown. As part of that plan, NBBJ and Hunt will look to add about 100,000 square feet to the Lexington Convention Center. The mayor noted the tightrope that must be walked in terms of integrating Rupp and a convention center while making each a stand-alone entity.
"The re-imagining of Rupp Arena and the Lexington Convention Center must be approached as one project," NBBJ partner Robert Mankin said in a news release. "Together, they will become the commercial, sports and entertainment destination that transforms Lexington. We are honored to work with the city of Lexington on this defining project."
Of the two main components to a proposed entertainment district, Rupp Arena is the top priority.
"It's a historic opportunity," Gray said. "It's the holy grail of sports architecture."
Not everybody was on board Thursday.
Wearing shorts and sandals, Don Pratt sat in the news conference holding a sign that questioned spending public money on Rupp and an entertainment district. Pratt called the project "Mayor Gray's $350 million hallucination" and a "phony arts district is a destructive waste and theft of taxpayers' money."
Lexington Mayor Jim Gray said that Indianapolis-based Hunt Construction Group Inc. will be paid about $300,000 for assistance in developing schematics. Seattle-based architectural firm NBBJ would be paid more than $2 million for creating schematics.
■ NBBJ, which will work with Lexington-based EOP Architects on the Rupp project, will design the Rupp project. NBBJ designed the $136 million renovation of Pauley Pavilion and worked on such facilities as the Los Angeles Lakers' Staples Center, the Seattle Mariners' Safeco Field, and Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati.
■ Hunt Construction, which was involved in the original construction of Rupp Arena, has more recently built the Orlando Magic's Amway Center, the Charlotte Bobcats' Time Warner Cable Arena, the Indianapolis Colts' Lucas Oil Stadium, and the St. Louis Cardinals' Busch Stadium. Hunt Construction's slogan: "You dream it, we build it."