Gov. Steve Beshear and Mayor Jim Gray took the offensive Friday, a day after the release of University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto's letter criticizing the $351 million renovation of Rupp Arena.
Gray and Beshear appeared Friday on the Kentucky Sports Radio network in an effort to ease tensions between the university and the city over the Rupp Arena project.
Beshear said he hopes to meet with university officials in coming weeks to figure out what will happen next.
"If they don't want to go forward, that's fine," Beshear said, but the city and the convention center need to know where the university stands so they can decide whether to continue to pursue the project.
Gray and Beshear both said Friday during the radio program that they think the Rupp renovation and reconstruction of the convention center will benefit the city and UK.
"I'm sold on the project because of the economic benefit that I think it's going to bring to Central Kentucky," Beshear said.
"We have an incredibly solid plan here," the mayor said. People have worked for three years on the details of this project, he said.
In a letter dated May 20 to Brent Rice, chairman of the Lexington Center Corp., Capilouto blamed the LCC, which oversees Rupp, and the city for failing to get $80 million in state funding for the project during this year's legislative session. Capilouto also took issue with the city for trying to blame UK after the funding was not approved. Capilouto's letter was publicly released Thursday.
"I am disappointed that you and others associated with the project have chosen to privately and publicly criticize the University of Kentucky," Capilouto wrote.
The General Assembly chose not to fund the project because Rupp's financing plan changed several times during the 60-day legislative session that concluded in April.
Capilouto sent his letter in response to a letter sent in late April by Rice asking the university to publicly support the project. In his letter, Rice said that UK's lukewarm endorsement of the renovation of the city-owned arena and convention center was the reason the project failed to gain political traction in Frankfort.
The project's schedule is now in limbo. The convention center cannot book conventions for 2016 and beyond because of the uncertainty of the project, Rice said.
Beshear has long backed the project, which Gray has billed as the centerpiece for a new downtown arts and entertainment district. But on Friday, Beshear called the "dueling letters" unproductive.
"I think you never get much settled when you are writing back and forth," Beshear said. "You've got to sit down and talk through these things."
On Friday's program, Gray stopped short of saying he thought Rice's letter to Capilouto was a mistake.
"This is all about bridge-building and looking forward," he said. Rice wrote the letter because the convention center has to know if and when to book conventions, Gray said.
Gray said Capilouto's tone in the letter was not "unexpected" because Rupp is an emotional project.
"There is going to be turbulence," he said.
At issue is more than just the renovation of Rupp Arena. The university's lease with Rupp Arena ends at the end of the 2018 season. Capilouto ended his May 20 letter by saying the university was going to "explore all potential options" regarding its current lease with Rupp Arena. "Our preference is to continue to play men's basketball games in downtown Lexington, under the right lease conditions."
Beshear said Friday he doesn't know what the university meant by exploring other options. "That's what I want to know," he said.
Since Rupp was built in 1976, there have been discussions about the university building its own arena. Those plans, however, never materialized for a variety of reasons.
In his letter, Capilouto also criticized the city for banking on $35 million in fan support to help pay for the $351 million project. Capilouto said the university estimates that it can generate less than $10 million in fan support.
During Friday's show, Gray said the university agreed to run the fan-support program. The proposal includes 140,000 people agreeing to pay $300 each for a stock-like option. Kentucky Sports Radio host Matt Jones said during Friday's program that he thought the $35 million estimate was way off.
When questioned about the $35 million in fan support, Gray and city officials frequently cite the Green Bay Packers, an NFL team. Green Bay used a stock option that raised more than $60 million to remodel Lambeau Field.
On Friday, when asked whether UK has warned the city that it was skeptical that it could raise $35 million from fans for the project, Gray sidestepped the question.
"UK asked to manage this portion of the project and said we have confidence in this model," Gray said.
Beshear said that if the projections are wrong, the financial plan can be tweaked. But if Coach John Calipari and the men's basketball team got behind the fan support model, "you can raise a heck of a lot of money," Beshear said.
Capilouto's letter came less than a week after a Bluegrass Poll showed that less than 20 percent of statewide voters support using state money for the renovation. About 75 percent of voters said they thought Lexington should find some other way to finance the project.
Gray's camp has said the poll question was poorly worded and failed to explain that it was a public-private partnership and that nearly all arenas in Kentucky are built using public dollars.
Beshear agreed Friday. The governor also said that several years ago, the state gave $75 million to KFC Yum Center, the home of the University of Louisville men's basketball team.
And earlier this year, the legislature "approved $56 million in bonding for the international convention center in downtown Louisville without a peep," Beshear said, referring to the Kentucky International Convention Center.