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Kentucky Basketball: Half-baked Rupp Arena Renovation Plans Need More Time In The Oven

The president of the University of Kentucky is rightly concerned about the relatively cavalier and apparently fungible financing plan for the Rupp Arena Renovation project, part of which the Kentucky General Assembly politely declined to approve.

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Well, Dr. Eli Capilouto really created a stir with his response letter to the Lexington Center Corporation. This was largely seen as a smack-down to the Rupp Arena project as currently construed, but I think instead it was an insistence that the project be conceived in the real world, rather than a fantasy constructed to make an impression, and I always thought that was what the first iteration of this project was — essentially a pipe dream, from a financing standpoint.

Eric Crawford says that UK has "pressed a reset button" on the Rupp Arena renovation plans. I think this is right. The university was always concerned that the large state and local tax contributions could undermine their efforts to secure funding for campus infrastructure.

Mark Story, unfortunately, gets it wrong, at least in part:

As a political matter, the UK president is now out in the open disparaging a project that Lexington Mayor Jim Gray and Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear have both been touting as a key to the future of economic development in Fayette County.

No. Capilouto has always been concerned about the financing plan, not the project. There's no doubt he supports the project, but not at the expense of funding other campus needs.  As we all know, you can't keep going to the well — $350 million in public funds is a massive gulp of water, and would likely leave it dry from a political standpoint for some time for UK projects. The financing plan needs to be radically redone so that taxpayers don't feel the bite nearly that much. UK has promised a big contribution, but the scope of the project, as well as the unrealistic finance "plan" was always the problem with UK supporting it.

I think there is plenty of momentum to continue, but the financing has to be rethought, as well as the scope of the project. Does that mean we may wind up playing in "Rupp Arena brought to you by Papa Johns?" Possibly. But you can't expect a university to sacrifice their academic infrastructure needs on the altar of basketball, even in Kentucky. Taxpayers have had it with big-dollar public finance deals, and saying "U of L got one so we should too" isn't going to fly. The timing is bad for UK, and we all have to live with that reality.

Story does get this partly right:

Yet it is disingenuous for UK to claim that its publicly arms-length stance toward the Rupp project — no visible support in public from the Kentucky athletics director, head men's basketball coach or university president — has not made it more difficult for the city to get financing in place.

It is also understandable why Lexington officials are beyond frustrated by UK's new-found lack of ardor for a major Rupp Arena upgrade. As far back as the 1990s, then-Kentucky coach Rick Pitino was calling for a new on-campus arena for Wildcats basketball.

The problem here is the chicken-egg deal. With so much public financing in the plan, UK can't afford to get behind it. Story may not think that it matters to UK's infrastructure funding, but it undoubtedly does.  A big chunk of taxpayer money like that is going to have plenty of opposition, no matter what it goes to. Smaller bites at the apple will have a much easier time.

For this project to happen, the financing question must be answered first, and in a way that minimizes any public tax contribution. Then, UK can and will tout it from the highest mountain. And you can trust me when I tell you that Kentucky will play ten more years in un-renovated Rupp Arena if that's what it takes. The city and the LCC are going to have to find a more palatable option before UK will allow Barnhart & Co. to publicly support it. UK has made their financial support clear to the tune of $10.7 million per year for 30 years, which is way more than U of L's commitment to the Yum! Center, which was little more than a share of ticket revenue.

It may not be as grand as everyone wants without public money, but frankly, as Story concludes, it's the money that should define the scope of the project, not the other way around. And Dr. Capiluto was right to complain about the infirm projections from various sources of revenue. That would surely make legislators nervous, as no doubt they'd figure the LCC and UK would come running to them to cover the shortfall, much as the city of Louisville had to agree to suck up big chunks of debt service if the Yum! Center didn't meet revenue expectations.

I'm glad this happened. The project looked half-baked to me, and I think it needs more time in the oven.