One Wednesday, June 18, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray officially announced that the renovation of Rupp Arena and the Lexington Convention Center is officially “suspended.” Since the project was announced last year, it has been stymied by all sorts of issues, from design to, ultimately, financial backing. About three weeks ago, University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto responded to the city of Lexington (and Lexington Center Corporation chairman Brent Rice) with a tersely worded letter. The letter left open the idea that the university was “exploring all potential options” regarding where the UK Men’s Basketball team would play its home games after the lease with Rupp Arena/LCC ended after the 2018 season.
Mayor Gray released this statement:
Following recent meetings and discussions with UK, the project to reinvent Rupp Arena and build a new convention center is suspended. We designed the arena based on what UK said they needed, but UK has changed its mind about the proposed lease.
While I’m disappointed we can’t move forward with the project right now, the city is poised with a good, solid plan. It’s a plan that improves the fan and visitor experience, creates jobs and spurs economic development.
I’ve learned after more than 850 projects in my construction career never to fall in love with a project. When the time is right, the plan is ready.
With the city officially putting the renovation plans for Rupp Arena on hold, the focus now shifts to exactly what options the university has left. Will UK somehow, someway find a plan to make an on campus arena feasible? Most outside observers would list that as unlikely. Sure, the university could build an arena, but could it financially foot the bill for an arena that would compete with the Yum Center in Louisville and give the Big Blue Nation the high level of facility that they crave? If, and that’s a big if, UK could somehow put a state of the art facility on campus, with all the bells and whistles and with seating capacity equal to Rupp, what other educational and academic capital projects would need to be placed on hold or outright denied to pay for such a place? As president Capilouto laid out in his letter, the university has a responsibility first to academics and then to other areas.
Is it feasible that Memorial Coliseum could somehow be updated or renovated to fit the needs of the Men’s Basketball program? Again, the cost of such a plan would need to be examined, but what about the displacement of the other sports that call Memorial home? What about the volleyball team? What about gymnastics? What about the women’s basketball team? Would a new home have to be found for those sports while the Coliseum is renovated? Not only that, but Memorial Coliseum is so landlocked with other university buildings, some of which still have not been completed, that it doesn’t seem likely that renovating that facility is a possibility either.
Eventually, I believe, the city/state and university will work out a plan where Rupp Arena, without the Lexington Convention Center, will be renovated. In the end, it doesn’t make sense for UK to do anything on campus, leaving Rupp Arena vacant in downtown Lexington, not with so many other concerns for other structural issues on campus. It doesn’t make any sense for the city of Lexington to let UK leave Rupp. Losing the primary tenant for any arena would be devastating, letting UK leave Rupp would cripple the city of Lexington, particularly it’s downtown area.
Since the renovation of Rupp Arena and the Lexington Convention Center has become such a political issue, what I foresee happening is what usually happens in politics within the Commonwealth of Kentucky: a deal will be reached at the last possible moment. With the shadow of the Yum Center hanging over everyone, no politician is going to sign off and support the grand plan of Mayor Gray to renovate the entire structure of Rupp and the LCC. Kentucky does not need two state of the art basketball arenas that the citizens will have to pay for. As I’ve said for awhile, I believe that a scaled down version of the Mayor’s Plan, that focuses on Rupp only will be the plan that gets the city of Lexington and the University of Kentucky back on board. And with a sound financial plan, with conservative revenue estimates, the citizens of Kentucky will be assured that there will only be one money pit arena in the state of Kentucky.
For the betterment of all parties involved, let’s all take a break, take a deep breath and (eventually) everyone will get back to the drawing board to give our Wildcats the home court that we all know they deserve.