Fayette County

‘Dreams do come true.’ After long wait, work begins on Rupp, convention center renovations

Nearly six years after it was originally proposed, Lexington city officials broke ground Thursday on the $241 million reinvention and expansion of the Lexington Convention Center.

“From the beginning, we wanted to fix the urban space that Rupp and the convention center occupy,” said Lexington Mayor Jim Gray who was elected in 2010. “Make it more inviting, more approachable, more pedestrian-friendly.”

The redo of the convention center and Rupp Arena, is being accompanied by Gray’s larger designs to reinvent chunks of downtown Lexington. Town Branch Commons — a trail that spans the breadth of downtown — will flank the center and lead into a new Town Branch Park — a 10-acre green space and park that will border the west side of the center.

“Yes, we are doing it all,” Gray said at the ground-breaking ceremony in front of Heritage Hall. “Yes, dreams do come true.”

Messer Construction is tasked with finishing the renovation and expansion by November 2021. The convention center and Rupp Arena will remain open throughout the construction period — even during University of Kentucky men’s basketball games — as construction occurs in phases.

Messer, via the construction contract, is required to cover any cost overruns.

“We are very confident in their ability to produce a quality product on time,” Craig Turner, chairman of the Lexington Center’s Board of Directors, said of the construction company. Messer recently did work on the old Fayette County courthouse and the City Center project, formerly known as Centrepointe.

The expanded convention center was designed by NBBJ Architects, based in Los Angeles, and EOP Architects of Lexington. The designs include a brand new wedge-shaped exterior for Rupp Arena, and when finished, the center will be 200,000 square feet of ballroom, meeting, exhibition and hospitality space.

Gray, along with several other public and private officials involved with the project, marked the occasion Thursday by shoveling dirt on the parking lot outside of Heritage Hall on West Main Street.

“There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come,” Gray said. “We are delivering on a powerful idea and soon it will be revealed in bricks and mortar for a world-class reinvented arena and a new convention center.”

The $241 million renovation will be paid for in a variety of ways, including $60 million from the Kentucky Legislature; up to $30 million from the city council; a hotel-motel tax increase, a 15-year lease with UK and a monetary commitment from VisitLex, the city’s tourism and visitors bureau. The revenue will pay off construction bonds.

Naming rights for the complex could also obtain additional dollars to pay off the bonds, Bill Owen, CEO and president of the Lexington Center said. The naming rights are still being marketed by UK, which owns the rights. Other revenues from operating the center will also pay off the bonds.

This architect's rendering shows an aerial view of what the renovated Rupp Arena and Lexington Center complex will look like after its renovation is completed in late 2021. NBBJ/EOP Architects