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Final report of Rupp task force envisions $300 million project with many sources of financing

Artist's rendering of proposed renovation of Lexington Center and Rupp Arena. Provided by NBBJ Architects
Artist's rendering of proposed renovation of Lexington Center and Rupp Arena. Provided by NBBJ Architects

The Arena, Arts and Entertainment District Task Force's final report envisions a $250 million to $300 million "transformation" of Lexington Center, including Rupp Arena, the Lexington Convention Center, the Civic Center Shoppes and immediate environs, but it does not outline a specific plan to pay for the huge project.

The report, issued Tuesday, said building a new Rupp Arena would not be economically feasible.

As previously reported, the task force proposes a major renovation of the city-owned arena rather than replacing the 24,000-seat home of the University of Kentucky Wildcats.

The 35-year-old arena would be substantially renovated to make it "the center of the expanded downtown."

"The renovation will maintain the historic character while maintaining the gold standard that is expected of Rupp Arena, both architecturally and symbolically," the report said.

The Lexington Convention Center, including the Civic Center Shoppes, would be removed. A new convention center made up of a cluster of buildings on a campuslike setting would be built immediately west of Rupp.

The Civic Center Shoppes would be moved into several small retail buildings along West Main Street.

The 46-acre arts and entertainment district would be primarily in an area bounded by Oliver Lewis Way, Broadway, and Short and High streets.

The task force also recommended the district include a small performing arts center, a school for the arts, an outdoor gathering and performance space, housing, a parking garage and new areas for retail. Town Branch, which runs through downtown in an underground culvert, would be brought to the surface.

"Now is where the hard work starts," said Gary Bates, design-team leader from the Norway-based firm Space Group, which was hired in August to develop a master plan for the proposed district.

"Now we really need to go from a vision to start implementing that vision. We don't have a lot of time if we want to meet the 2018 milestone," said Bates, a former basketball player who grew up in Virginia and taught at UK.

UK has a contract with Lexington Center to play its men's basketball games in Rupp Arena through 2018.

Most critical at this point, task force members said, is lining up financing.

If financing is found, phased demolition and construction of the civic center and Rupp Arena could start as early as 2014.

"This important project will require a mix of local, state and private funding for construction," the report said.

The finance committee, chaired by Central Bank president Luther Deaton, has identified 14 potential funding sources, including revenue from naming rights of the arena, premium seating, advertising, sponsorships, concert and event promotions, concessions, stock offerings, state road funds, state tourism tax incentives, tax increment financing and new market tax credits.

The next step will be "to get our arms around all the revenue streams. We'll have to ... confirm those" streams, said task force chairman Brent Rice.

Rice said there was "tremendous retail opportunity (and) tremendous opportunity with the technology changes inside Rupp. We have to have a very detailed, well-studied business plan going forward so we understand all components."

Gov. Steve Beshear put $3.5 million in his recent state budget proposal for the project, contingent on a Lexington match of $1.5 million.

Mayor Jim Gray said the $5 million would be enough to hire a program manager and begin design, engineering and finance work.

Gray had planned to meet Tuesday afternoon in Frankfort with Central Kentucky lawmakers to defend the $3.5 million. But the meeting had to be postponed because other House business interfered.

The Green Bay Packers' model of selling stock to fans to raise money to renovate Lambeau Field also will be looked at, Rice said. "That's an option. The Packers raised almost $62 million. That needs to be looked at. ... We think there's an opportunity there."

Bates said that last week in Scandinavia some people approached him and said they loved basketball and asked how could they get involved in the Rupp Arena project, meaning on a financial level.

"It completely shocked me ...I didn't anticipate (Rupp Arena) to have such a resonating interest outside of Kentucky. That has been the biggest surprise," Bates said. Asked whether he thought selling stock to renovate Rupp could happen, he said, "Absolutely, it can happen."

A critical factor in the overall financial picture is to have financing in place so that when the economy changes, the project will be shovel-ready, Rice said.

Gray told task force members that not everyone would get behind plans for the district. But he said, "A big part of the democratic process is the dissenting voice. ... Things are not always sanitized and sweetness and light. We know as we go down this road there will be ... many points of view, and we will accommodate those."

UK President Eli Capilouto issued a statement Tuesday afternoon in response to the report.

"Our position has not changed," he said. "Our steadfast focus has been— and will continue to be — the revitalization of our campus core. We have concerns about anything that competes for state dollars with that focus.

"Revitalizing our campus represents the best way we can honor the Kentucky Promise of ensuring the best possible undergraduate education for the commonwealth's students and future leaders as well as the kind of research that addresses the state's challenges.

"Everyone needs to clearly understand the specifics of what the proposed Rupp Arena, Arts and Entertainment District will cost and who would ultimately pay for it."

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