Tom Eblen

KET to show new film about creation of Rupp Arena complex

The steel framework of Rupp Arena takes shape in early February of 1975.
The steel framework of Rupp Arena takes shape in early February of 1975. 1975 File Photo

As Lexington Center Corp. developed plans for a proposed $250 million renovation and expansion, it also commissioned a film celebrating the creation of Rupp Arena and the adjacent hotel, convention center and shopping complex four decades ago.

Game Changer: The Lexington Center Story premieres Dec. 13 on Kentucky Educational Television, which will show it 10 more times through Jan. 28. (Check for times and channels.)

Game Changer, produced by Arthur Rouse and narrated by Ralph Hacker, features interviews with many leaders of the 1970s construction effort. It is an informative hour for anyone interested in the histories of University of Kentucky basketball or downtown development.

But Game Changer is as much a public relations vehicle as a documentary, filled with self-congratulations and ending with an appeal for Lexington’s leaders to “guide this facility into the next generation.”

That doesn’t mean most of the self-congratulation isn’t deserved.

There is no question that Rupp Arena, the convention center and the nearby Opera House are huge assets for Lexington, both economically and culturally. And the facility’s creation helped prop up downtown at a time when it and city centers across the country were struggling from the effects of suburban sprawl.

Game Changer begins with UK Coach Adolph Rupp’s retirement in 1972. The Wildcats played in Memorial Coliseum, which with 12,000 seats was much too small. Several fans who called themselves the Alley Kats began calling for a bigger arena.

But UK President Otis Singletary showed no interest. He was a football fan, focused on building Commonwealth Stadium to replace Stoll Field. Frustrated by UK’s indifference — shades of things to come — the Alley Kats looked downtown. Business and civic leaders jumped on the idea, which they saw as a vehicle for urban renaissance, and a public-private partnership was formed.

This group of powerful people, some of whom were rivals, came together out of a shared interest in saving downtown, growing the economy and promoting the arts as well as UK basketball. They focused on city-owned property at West Main and South Broadway that had been cleared by “urban renewal.”

Their ambitious goal was to build the nation’s biggest (23,500 seats) and best college basketball arena, a state-of-the-art facility that also could host other events. As part of the complex, they proposed downtown’s first modern hotel and a convention center, which city leaders had wanted for decades. And if shopping malls could work in the suburbs, why not downtown?

The project grew to include renovation of the 1886 Opera House, but that became a reconstruction when the roof collapsed. Then, as now, the Opera House was controversial because it was too big for some shows and too small for others. But downtown Lexington would be a poorer place today without it, and this group was far-sighted enough to create an endowment fund to help support its operation.

The public-private partnership was risky and challenging, and people interviewed for the film tell some entertaining stories about how it all came together. In the end, everything worked, thanks to civic leaders such as Jim Host, Foster Pettit, Dewitt Hisle, Tom Dupree, Jake Graves, Linda Carey and many others.

Rupp Arena turned out to be a great basketball and concert venue. Good management and functional design have also allowed Rupp to successfully host everything from ice hockey to tractor pulls. The convention center, Hyatt Regency hotel and Opera House continue to play major roles in this city.

The Lexington Center says 1.2 million people attended events there this year, generating $19.8 million in revenue and creating an economic impact estimated at $80 million.

Game Changer covers some controversial aspects of Lexington Center’s creation, but no critics appear in the film. We hear only from defenders.

The 1970s practice of shutting the public out of the decision-making process for such a major public facility would never pass muster today. Neither would the wholesale destruction of an historic neighborhood occupied mostly by poor black people in order to create a 20-acre parking lot. And rightfully so.

As the Lexington Center Corp. looks for financial support for its expansion plans, it faces several challenges, some of which have been there since the beginning.

The original design crammed too much into too small a space. The shopping mall has always struggled. Redeveloping that sea of asphalt — and building the parking structures the complex should have always had — present both challenges and opportunities for the future.

Game Changer tells a good story, but it’s not the whole story.