UK Men's Basketball

Barnhart says UK must play in 'gold standard' arena

University of Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart
University of Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart

The arena used by the University of Kentucky men's basketball team "must be the gold standard," UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart told a task force studying the future of Rupp Arena and the Lexington Center complex.

"The facility our players compete in, and our fans go to, must be the gold standard. It can be nothing ... less than that," Barnhart told the group appointed by Mayor Jim Gray in March to make recommendations on whether to renovate Rupp Arena or replace it with a new facility. "I think on that we all can agree."

The 45-member Arena, Arts & Entertainment District Task Force held its first organizational meeting Thursday. The group will be financed with $350,000 in private donations, which have not been raised. Attorney Brent Rice, chairman of the task force, said he was not asking anyone in the room for money Thursday, "but I will be calling you."

Gray, who announced Tuesday he would suspend six months of his salary in light of the city's glum financial situation, kicked off the fund-raising effort by making a personal contribution of $20,000.

It's too early to say whether a majority of the task force prefers a new arena or renovation of Rupp and Lexington Center, Rice said. First, "we have to evaluate the existing facility to see what its true potential really is."

He called the task force a "pretty diverse group" and said "all options are on the table."

The task force, which includes four subcommittees, hopes to have preliminary reports done by July 30, followed by a preliminary plan for the district that encompasses Rupp Arena by Oct. 31. A preliminary implementation recommendation would be made by Dec. 31, and a final report issued Jan. 31.

Aside from Rupp Arena, the task force will focus on the entire Lexington Center facility and the community's need for new performing arts space.

Barnhart said the group must find a way to balance several "profoundly important issues — those of the community, downtown and the university."

Whatever the recommendations, Barnhart said, they will have "a significant impact on the bottom line for UK and university athletics."

Gray thanked the committee, made up of civic and business leaders, entrepreneurs, neighborhood representatives and former UK players and boosters, for serving on the task force.

No one was "casually selected" to serve, the mayor said. "Each of you has ideas to contribute."

Members were broken into four working committees: needs, use and benefit; planning and design; finance; and technical advisory.

The four committees will have the latitude to determine what kind of economic and feasibility studies are needed to support their recommendations, Rice said.

Consultants will be hired as necessary, said Stan Harvey, a principal in Urban Collage, an urban planning firm hired to work with the task force and provide staff support.

One initial job will be to pull together all studies relating to Rupp Arena, Lexington Center and the civic center retail shops that have been done over the years. Also, the task force would like any studies the university has completed outlining its wish list for a "gold standard facility," Harvey said.

The arts component of the study will reflect what some have said is a need for a new performing arts space to replace UK's Singletary Center, which lacks the space to house touring companies of New York productions.

Jim Clark, executive director of LexArts, said after the meeting that any new performance facility should be designed first and foremost for the needs of local groups.

"Serve our people first," he said.

LexArts and the university will be contacted for studies they have done on cultural and performing arts needs in the community.

"We are still trying to get our heads around what's existing and what needs to be done," Harvey said.

Bill Owen, president and CEO of Lexington Center Corp, gave the task force a brief history of Rupp Arena, which opened in 1976. Twenty years later, then-UK basketball coach Rick Pitino suggested a new arena be built on campus.

Instead, Lexington Center Corp. renovated Rupp Arena twice, and UK signed a 15-year lease that expires after the 2017-18 season, Owen said.

The renovations, which started in 2001 and were finished in 2004, included $1.6 million for installation of all blue seats in the lower arena and a $52 million refurbishing of Rupp Arena and the Lexington Center complex.

The idea of a new arena never completely disappeared. In 2007, the city halted its study of the financial feasibility of building a new arena. Instead, UK looked into a plan proposed by sports marketing and media firm IMG, based on construction of a new arena that would generate enough revenue to pay for itself.

In December, UK announced it had shelved that plan and passed the buck back to local government.

Rupp Arena has attendance of 850,000 at various events throughout the year, Owen said. About 400,000 of that is for UK men's basketball.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader