I will be quite honest with you. Following the day-to-day (or in this case month-to-month) maneuverings of the Rupp Arena Renovation Project can be difficult for even those of us who have kept up to date on the matter. The state, city and University of Kentucky have been engaged in an elaborate dance that is often difficult to follow and the ultimate resolution has not always been clear. But what is clear is that we are on the precipice of a big few months in the project that will be initiated on Wednesday with the Lexington city press conference on the future of the Rupp Renovation project. With that in mind, it seems as if this is a good time to reset the entire scenario and get a notion of where we are, what is happening this week and where the entire project is headed.
RUPP RENOVATION AS OF TODAY:
The city of Lexington, the University of Kentucky and many of the leaders of the Kentucky State Government, all want a renovated Rupp Arena project to begin within the next 12-18 months. That much is clear. While there have been pipe dream hopes about an entirely new Rupp Arena that replaces the somewhat bland, dumpy (truth hurts folks) version that we have now, it looks as if that ship has sailed. The city of Lexington, led by Mayor Jim Grey, and the University of Kentucky, both agree that a renovated Rupp Arena is the way to go and most everyone will concede that it must begin before the end of the UK-Rupp Arena lease (2018).
However much of the agreement ends there. The city of Lexington wants the Rupp Arena project to be part of a much greater effort within the city to expand the Lexington Convention Center and renovate (or in my view create) a Lexington Entertainment District. Likely because of the belief that a Rupp Arena renovation will have significantly more support than these other projects, the city is putting the three together in an entire “Renovation Project” that carries Rupp Arena’s name but entails much more. The University of Kentucky is not against these other projects, but doesn’t have a significant dog in that fight either way. So for the University, the focus is on Rupp and also the projects on campus. If too much money is given to Lexington to do the greater Entertainment pieces, it could take money out of the state coffers for potential future projects on campus. This tension between the Rupp/campus focus of UK versus the Lexington Downtown Economic focus for the city has been a continuing issue during the course of these discussions. Both sides are ready for change but the devil, as always, is in the details.
WHAT IS HAPPENING THIS WEEK:
The city of Lexington has called a press conference that will be attended by the Governor where it is expected that they will announced the hiring of an architect for the Rupp Arena Renovation Project and the Governor will bring forth money from the state to help pay for the design process (whether this money is from the Coal Severance Tax…an issue that I have serious misgivings about on this project, remains to be seen). The city is expected to announce that design will get under way and a new happy day is headed for the city of Lexington. One can almost feel the joy and happiness that will surely be present in the heart of downtown Lexington (hopefully in the center of the huge grassy nothingness plot) on Wednesday afternoon.
But it is important to note that one group will not be in attendance Wednesday. By looking at the new release and talking to a couple of sources, it is clear that UK representatives do not plan to be in attendance for this announcement. Now what this means is open to some interpretation. The school has previously mentioned that it wants to see some basic information on the project, specifically where the money is coming from to pay for it and how it will be distributed in the arena. As of yet, the city has shown none of this. Because of that lack of financial information, the University has decided to sit this one out. I am told by a couple of sources that conversations between the city and the University have gone well, but there is a feeling on the UK side that things have been rushed a bit to get to this press conference stage. Thus at an event about the major arena in the city, one that connects the city and the University, one of the two major parties will not be there. Make of that what you will.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE:
Time is, as they say, a ‘wastin. The lease between Rupp Arena and the University of Kentucky ends in 2018. Most everyone agrees that if a major renovation is to be done, the funding must come from the state legislature by the end of 2014. In Kentucky, our legislature meets at the first of the year, every two years. That means if the ducks are going to be in a row, they have to be there by January 2014. Thus both parties are in a bit of a time crunch. For the city of Lexington, support must be found, not only for Rupp Arena (where the most disagreement may come from ticket holders worried they will be priced out) but also for the Convention Center and “Entertainment District” that includes less universally loved projects like the now infamous “parks and streams.” If the city is going to get the funding for all, the 2018 deadline looms and the 2014 legislature must see the request and design efforts quickly, in order for the process to move along.
For the University, the next few months represent the next 30 years of Kentucky basketball’s home arena. The University must make sure that in this bigger picture project, it is taken care of as the arena’s major tenant. The new arena can’t be built on the backs of season ticket holders, while also allowing for luxury boxes, etc to allow the basketball program to maximize its full value. This involves negotiation with the city not only on design of the new Arena, but also distribution of monies. As we have seen with the boondoggle put forth by UL in Louisville at the Yum Center, these negotiations are crucial and have to be done in the next few months. I am told that the two parties are not far apart, but key issues remain, which is likely why we are not seeing UK representatives at the press conference on Wednesday.
We are going to know about the future of Rupp Arena by the end of the year. The city is trying to move this project quickly, likely hoping that if it gets momentum from the press conference this week, it can carry over and get the entirety of its Convention/Entertainment project swept up into 2014 funding. The University is moving a bit slower, hoping to get what is the most important piece of the puzzle to it, Rupp Arena and the “how are you going to pay for this” question answered before a huge move is made. Wednesday is the first step of what will be a very interesting few months. And while I do think an eventual agreement will be made, if UK is not standing side by side with the city (and as of now, all indications…including the city’s own press release suggest they won’t), it showcases that much work is still to be done.