Arena district still good idea; UK right to make campus its priority

Now that Lexington Mayor Jim Gray knows that Wildcat round-ball mania won't propel his vision for downtown, he has to make the case on its economic merits — and there's actually a very good case to be made.

University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto took the only stand he could: In the competition for scarce state dollars, the university's priority has to be refurbishing its core campus to serve an educational mission, rather than refurbishing Rupp Arena, already one of college basketball's finest venues.

Capilouto publicly drew the line in the sand for the first time Monday in a meeting with the Herald-Leader editorial board. But, even before Capilouto's statement, it's been clear the impetus for the Arena, Arts & Entertainment District Task Force came from the mayor's office, not UK.

(Yes, in the not-so-distant past, UK coaches and sports officials have publicly yearned for a bigger, better, different arena — and might do so again — but that's not the driving force now.)

Less than six months into his UK tenure, Capilouto would have sent a demoralizing mixed message if he tried to simultaneously champion both $1 billion in campus construction and a Rupp remodel or replacement.

And it was heartening to hear men's basketball coach John Calipari tell his vast radio audience that in a competition for money between classrooms and Rupp, he's for classrooms.

Yet none of that means that doing both is a bad idea — or that the legislature should not support both.

Cities are the drivers of the economy, and anything that makes Lexington a more desirable city is good for the statewide economy and Kentucky's job-creation prospects.

What Gray has in mind is much, much bigger than Rupp Arena. He's out to make Lexington a competitor with cities where quality of life and urban amenities attract business, investment and smart ambitious people, including scientists, college professors and students.

Lexington already owns Rupp, the Lexington Center and 40 surrounding acres. While Rupp is a great place for basketball, the civic center complex is not serving the city and state well in almost every other respect. Gray is only being a responsible leader by assigning the sharpest minds he could recruit to think about how to get more return from that large city asset.

Gray plans to seek $20 million from the legislature to cover startup costs, such as engineering, design and business planning, for an arena, arts and entertainment district anchoring one end of downtown.

No one expects taxpayers to pick up the whole tab, estimated at $200 million. The task force is still working on financing ideas.

Rupp and the Lexington Center generate revenue that could be used to pay for transforming a faceless citadel in a sea of asphalt into the crown jewel in a lively, vital, prosperous urban fabric.

Gray should keep making the case.