Kentucky’s storied basketball program regained bragging rights over its rival down the road by ending its Final Four hiatus. Now civic leaders are setting their sights on perhaps outdoing Louisville’s new arena.
The day after Kentucky clinched a Final Four berth, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray appointed a 40-plusmember task force Monday to study the future of Rupp Arena, the longtime home of the Wildcats.
It’s the first step in deciding whether to renovate the downtown arena or possibly build a new home for college basketball’s all-time winningest program. The task force expects to present its findings about a redesigned venue early next year.
Gray insisted he was starting the review without any preconceived preference.
“Building new it’s easy to get your arms around, even though it’s a big project,” the mayor said at a news conference attended by for- mer Kentucky coaching great Joe B. Hall in the lobby outside Rupp Arena. “It’s a tougher challenge to examine an existing facility. Lots of questions associated with that, and yet there are opportunities in that as well.”
In the never-ending basketball arms race of high-paid coaches and top-rated recruits, Louisville upped the ante this past season by moving into the sparkling KFC Yum! Center. The move into the $238 million, 22,000-seat facility downtown came after 54 years at historic Freedom Hall at the state fairgrounds.
The new arena is replete with luxury suites, high-tech video displays and a terrace overlooking the Ohio River. However, as Kentucky kept advancing in this year’s NCAA tournament, the Cardinals went home early, losing their opener to Morehead State.
Aging Rupp Arena remains one of the top college basketball venues but lacks the revenuegenerating luxury boxes.
Gray said he thinks Lexington, and UK, have the upper hand in the long term.
Lexington owns a 46- acre site downtown that includes the 23,600-seat Rupp Arena and the Lexington Center, Gray said. Louisville’s Yum Center was built on a much smaller parcel, he said.
“This represents a competitive advantage and a unique asset in a downtown,” the mayor said.
Even in this basketball hotbed, Gray acknowledged there would be naysayers to talk of a redesigned Rupp Arena or a new facility at a time when the city is struggling with a tight budget.
“Sure there will be rough spots, like our team’s had rough spots, but we all know, no pain and no gain,” he said.
Gray said the task force will be funded with private donations. Task force chairman Brent Rice set a goal of raising about $350,000 to hire a team of top consultants, designers and planners. The panel’s vice chairmen are Jim O’Brien, chairman and CEO of Ashland Inc., and former Lexington Mayor Pam Miller.
Rice, an attorney, said the timing of the task force’s announcement couldn’t be better, coming a day after Kentucky defeated North Carolina, another basketball blue blood, in the East Regional final to end a 13-year Final Four drought.
As the Lexington Center’s most crucial tenant, the University of Kentucky will be a key participant in the study, he said.
UK athletic director Mitch Barnhart and UK Board of Trustees Chairman Britt Brockman will be task force members.
“This is a brand that we all cherish and we will make sure … that brand continues,” Rice said, referring to Kentucky basketball.
UK President Lee T. Todd Jr., who early in his tenure signed on to a 15-year lease extension for Kentucky to keep playing at Rupp, said the arena and Lexington Center are a vibrant part of downtown Lexington. Todd said the university will have “an open mind toward what the possibilities might be” as the task force review begins.
He said any improvements also must be geared toward the performing arts to add to downtown Lexington’s appeal.
Todd is retiring in June after a decade of leading Kentucky’s flagship university. UK trustees hope to hire a new president in May.