An overwhelming majority of Kentucky voters say the state shouldn't spend $80 million revamping Rupp Arena and the attached convention center in downtown Lexington, a statewide poll released Sunday shows.
Eighteen percent of registered voters surveyed in the Bluegrass Poll said they approved of spending state money on the project, compared to 75 percent who said the city of Lexington should find another way to pay for the $351 million project that would expand Rupp Arena and build a new convention center. Seven percent said they were not sure who should foot the bill.
The poll, sponsored jointly by the Lexington Herald-Leader, The Courier-Journal, WKYT-TV and WHAS-TV, was conducted May 14 to 16 by SurveyUSA. The telephone survey of 1,782 registered voters has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.1 percentage points.
Frank Butler, project manager for the Rupp Arena redesign, said the survey question was poorly worded and asked about only one part of the financing plan. The question was: Should state lawmakers provide $80 million in state funds to help renovate Rupp Arena and an attached convention center in Lexington? Or should the city of Lexington find some other way to finance the $351 million project?
Butler said the question should have told respondents that the $351 million total includes 49 percent state and local money and 51 percent private financing. Part of that private financing includes money generated by a lease with the University of Kentucky's athletics department, which receives no tax dollars and is self-supporting.
"That's an accurate description of the entire financial plan, not gathering opinions on a single isolated component of the plan," Butler said.
A solid majority of people in every subgroup and demo graphic surveyed — gender, age, race, political party, ideology, education, income and geography — opposed using state funds on the arena project.
For example, 77 percent of Republicans said the city should find another way to fund the rebirth of the storied home of the UK men's basketball team. Among Democrats polled, 72 percent opposed state funding.
Individuals with an annual income of more than $80,000 a year were most likely to support state funding for the project, at 25 percent. Those making less than $40,000 a year were least likely to support the funding, at 12 percent.
Slightly more people in north-central Kentucky, a region that includes Lexington and much of Northern Kentucky, supported state funding for the arena and convention center compared to other parts of the state. About 22 percent of voters in the region that includes Lexington supported using state money, compared to 14 percent in Western Kentucky, 15 percent in Eastern Kentucky and 18 percent in Louisville and surrounding areas.
Mayor Jim Gray, who has pushed for the redesign of Rupp Arena as part of a larger effort to revitalize downtown, lobbied the legislature unsuccessfully this year for the $80 million.
Gray has said he hopes to return to Frankfort as early as January to ask the legislature for its blessing.
His plan also calls for the city to issue $40 million in bonds for the project. The Urban County Council has scheduled a hearing on that request for the end of June. Gray has said the bonds would require debt payments of about $2 million a year, but a payment would not have to be made in the upcoming fiscal year.
How the poll results will affect Lexington's chances of securing state funding in January is not clear.
Gov. Steve Beshear, who has long championed the Rupp Arena project, will continue to support it, a spokesman for the Democratic governor said Friday.
"He will continue to seek ways to bring this project to fruition," Terry Sebastian said. "He feels strongly that the project will have the same positive impact on the economy of Central Kentucky like the state investment in the downtown Louisville project did for that community. That project is reaping huge financial returns for the commonwealth."
The General Assembly approved $75 million for the construction of the KFC Yum Center, the home of the University of Louisville men's basketball team. The legislature also recently approved $56 million in state money for a renovation of Louisville's downtown convention center, which is owned by the state.
"The approval of this project is a question of both economics and fairness," Beshear said in April. "From an economic standpoint, Rupp Arena and the convention center will give a significant boost to the Lexington and Central Kentucky economy, just as the Yum Center is providing to Louis ville and the surrounding region."
Butler said Lexington was asking for only 21 percent of the total $351 million price tag to be paid by the state. That's a lot less than other convention centers and arenas that have been built in Kentucky during the past several decades, he said.
"In Louisville, 21 percent of the Yum Center and 38 percent of the Kentucky International Convention Center were state-funded," he said. "And in Covington, the state picked up 100 percent of the Northern Kentucky Convention Center."
When city officials return to Frankfort in January, Butler said, they will make a compelling case for state funding.
"Legislators know the positive impact this project will have on the entire state," he said. "That's why they have historically funded and supported similar projects. So we will continue to advocate for the project and the 3,000 permanent jobs it will produce."
Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, and House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, were not available for comment late Friday.
Stumbo and the Democratic-led House passed bills this year that provided money for the Rupp project. Stivers and the Republican-led Senate did not follow suit.
Legislative leaders said after the 60-day session ended in mid April that there were not enough votes in the Senate Republican caucus to approve funding for the Rupp project.