Fayette County

Lexington Convention Center plans include changes for Rupp Arena

New renderings show the exterior of the new Lexington Convention Center and Rupp Arena. This image shows the entrance from the Main Street side.
New renderings show the exterior of the new Lexington Convention Center and Rupp Arena. This image shows the entrance from the Main Street side. NBBJ and EOP

Newly released designs of the long-awaited expansion of the Lexington Convention Center include changes to Rupp Arena along with new exhibition, ballroom and meeting space that would be built to the north of the current Main Street complex.

The plans call for 100,841 square feet of exhibition space, 25,080 square feet of ballroom space and 14 meeting rooms. The total square footage for the new complex is 756,593 feet.

That’s a substantial increase from the current convention center, which has 66,000 square feet of exhibition space and 17,600 square feet of ballroom space. Part of the current convention center wraps around Rupp Arena. Under the plans, parts of the convention center would be removed, and a new glass or transparent entrance would go in front of Rupp. The new convention center would mostly be built on land that currently has some of Lexington Center’s ancillary buildings and a parking lot.

Plans also call for two smaller buildings in front of the convention center and Rupp Arena. The two-story building in front of Rupp Arena — tentatively called the Pavilion — could be used as meeting space and would have restaurants on the first floor. The building in front of the convention center would include ballrooms and other space on the first floor, said Robert Mankin, a partner with NBBJ.

NBBJ and EOP Architects of Lexington unveiled their new designs at a Lexington Center Corp. board meeting Thursday.

The plans call for construction to begin in January, with the entire project to be completed in December 2020. The new complex would be built in phases so the convention center can continue to operate. The group had hoped to start construction by this past spring.

The Lexington Center Corp. oversees Rupp, the convention center and the Lexington Opera House.

The two architectural firms also designed a previous plan to overhaul Rupp and the convention center at the same time. The $350 million project was suspended in June 2014 after the group failed to get state money for the much larger project, which was then scaled back.

The 2014 designs included expanding the second tier of Rupp Arena and installing a new glass outer wall. Under the plans unveiled Thursday, the top of Rupp Arena would still be visible. The current metal siding would be removed, and it would get a new exterior glass or transparent covering. The plan would allow people to see Rupp Arena from Main Street. Currently, Rupp is visible only from High Street.

“I’ve had people stop me in front of the Hilton and ask me, ‘Where’s Rupp Arena?’” said Bill Owen, president and CEO of Lexington Center. The Hilton is across the street from Rupp.

By not expanding the upper bowl of Rupp Arena, the group saved about $100 million, Owen said.

Thanks to new technology that wasn’t available three years ago, Lexington Center can replace the benches on the second tier of Rupp with chair-backed seats. Owen said he will travel soon to a stadium that used that technology, so he can see whether it will work in Rupp Arena.

The addition of the chair-backed seats would result in fewer seats in the very top portion of the arena, Lexington Center officials said. The exact number has not yet been determined.

Rupp would get four new hospitality suites. One would be available exclusively for the University of Kentucky men’s basketball program. The three other hospitality suites could be used for meetings or exhibit space, Mankin said.

Luxury boxes were once popular in arenas. Now people want areas like private clubs where they can go before, during or after events, Mankin said.

Owen said the estimated cost for the project is $265 million, which includes debt payments from previous renovations and financing and other costs. That’s an increase from earlier estimates of $250 million.

The group will have a more accurate construction cost estimate by late September, he said.

Previously, the group has said money generated from a 2.5 percent hotel tax increase would pay off $240 million in bonds, including more than $60 million in state money that was part of a state budget approved by the General Assembly in 2016. In addition, the city of Lexington has committed $10 million and also set aside $750,000 in the current budget to pay for additional borrowing for the project if needed. Other funding sources include a 15-year lease with UK. Currently, UK pays a little less than $1 million a year to the center for basketball games. That number is expected to increase to a guaranteed minimum payment of $6.6 million in the first year.

Senate president Robert Stivers talks about a bill that would let Lexington increase its hotel tax to fund a $250 million expansion of the Lexington Convention Center.

The group also is selling naming rights for the complex — but not Rupp.

No announcement has been made on how much those naming rights will generate. Owen said the discussions between the center and the groups interested in the naming rights continue.

The redesigned convention center would be more accessible and integrated into downtown, said Rick Ekhoff of EOP Architects.

“We wanted to give it character that was unique to Lexington,” Ekhoff said. “As people experience the convention center, they also experience the city.”

The plans call for an exterior path between the Hyatt and Rupp Arena that the public could use to get through the complex. In addition, the plan shows an interior hallway between Rupp and the convention center. The front of the convention center and Rupp Arena would have areas and walkways that couldbe used for events.

“We worked closely with SCAPE to integrate these plans with the Town Branch Park,” Mankin said.

Town Branch Park is a proposed 10-acre park next to the new convention center. Private money is being raised to pay for the nearly $30 million park. Town Branch Trail, which is proposed to go through downtown, would cross in front of the complex on Main Street.

Ann Bakhaus, who is on the Lexington Center Corp. board and chairs the committee raising money for Town Branch Park, said she liked the designs but was concerned that there were no windows on the north side of the complex that looks into the park. A terraced roof garden on the side of the new exhibition hall would have views of the park. But people in the exhibition hall might not know the park is there, she said.

“In the cities that we went to where the park is attached to a convention center, the park acts like a welcome center to the convention center,” Bakhaus said.

When the Town Branch Park is built, more than 500 parking spaces behind Rupp Arena would be lost. That’s a concern for the Main Street Baptist Church, which has long used that parking lot, church officials said Thursday.

Lee Ridgeway, chairman of the board of trustees for Main Street Baptist Church, said it is working with the park and Lexington Center Corp. to try to preserve the parking. It only has 30 parking spots on its property, Ridgeway said. Approximately 80 to 85 percent of its congregation currently uses the parking lot behind Rupp Arena. The new convention center will have 300 new parking spots on the first floor of the exhibition center.

“Through a gentleman’s agreement dating back to former Mayor Scotty Baesler’s administration, we have had access to that parking,” Ridgeway said.

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