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Task force reveals 'big dream' for Rupp Arena, city's west end

By: Andy Cunningham Email
By: Andy Cunningham Email

Calling it a big dream, a task force is calling on the next incarnation of Rupp Arena and the Lexington Center to become the catalyst for major development along the west end of downtown Lexington. The price tag would be between $250 and $300 million dollars.

In a 22 page report, the 47-member task force presented this morning its vision into making the now famous home of University of Kentucky basketball into the anchor for a district that includes a new convention center, shopping and arts venues, and park.

"In the discussion, one answer became exceedingly clear: the potential to create a dynamic, urban district in and around Rupp Arena can enliven the entire city of Lexington," said Brent Rice, the Rupp Arena, Arts and Entertainment District Task Force chairman. "With the promise of new and expanded convention facilities, arts and entertainment venues, new retail and housing, and public space so deserved in downtown Lexington, the sum of its parts can play a transformative role in building the next great American city."

The task force spent the past ten months examining facilities in other cities, holding public meetings, and reviewing case studies.

The group says Rupp Arena, with basketball as the primary tenant, needs to be updated to best serve the interests of the University of Kentucky and the community as a world class facility. For the needs of UK basketball and the Kentucky High School Athletic Association (KHSAA) Boy's State Basketball Sweet Sixteen, the task force says the new arena needs new amenities - club seats, suites, and enhanced scoreboards - to be competitive. The committee, with the university's agreement, has concluded that the arena should remain downtown.

Beyond Rupp Arena, the task force's findings and recommendations include:

Development of a district roughly outlined by Oliver Lewis Way, Short Street, Broadway, and High Street. The area around the current Lexington Center whould be considered as a potential district of mixed-use, arts and culture based development.

The current facilities of the Lexington Convention Center, with 66,000 square feet of exhibition space and 40,000 square feet of meeting rooms and ballrooms dramatically under-serves the region's full potential to attract conventions and events, according to the task force. Based on a study by CS&L in 2011, the task force says that a convention facility with a minimum of 100,000 square feet of exhibition space and 40,000 square feet of dispersed meeting room and ballroom space would best serve the Lexington market. That facility could be an expansion of the existing facility or an entirely new one.

Create a retail environment that complements the new convention center by drawing more people downtown. With nearly 46 vacant or underutilized acres in the district and its immediate vicinity, the committee recommends the creation of a retail cluster with specialized retail opportunities.

Create a small performing arts venue. The task force says several performing arts groups, such as the Lexington Philharmonic and the Central Kentucky Youth Orchestra, face challenges that range from scheduling difficulty and marketing because of the lack of a professional facility. Given this, the task force says the community has an acute need for a 800-1,000 seat performing arts hall.

Expand the presence of arts education. The task force says Transylvania, the University of Kentucky and the Bluegrass Community and Technical School have world-class arts programs with certain needs for space and facilities. These organizations have expressed a willingness to explore collaborations with the new district and the opportunities therein. In addition, Fayette County Public Schools (FCPS) has an established performing and visual arts school; FCPS has expressed interest in bringing some or all of these facilities to the downtown area.

Create an outdoor performance place and home for visual art. The task force recommends that an outdoor amphitheater with some level of weather protection could serve the district as an additional performance venue and urban amenity. The amphitheater would be connected to a larger outdoor public space or plaza. Lexington's visual arts organizations, including the UK Art Museum and the Lexington Art League, among others, have agreed that new facilities to exhibit (and produce) visual art are needed in the community, and in downtown in particular. The task force says a range of ideas, from a contemporary art museum, to a Kunsthal-type space, to a UK satellite have been discussed.

To finance the project, the task force says it will require a mix of local, state and private funding for construction. Possible major funding sources include new revenue from premium seating, advertising, sponsorship, concert/event promotions, concessions and parking associated with proposed plans. It will also likely need local and state funding to create a new economic engine.

Battling for state dollars is already getting the concern of University of Kentucky officials who have said they want to first ensure UK's educational program aren't sacrificed.

“Our position has not changed," said UK President Eli Capilouto on Rupp Arena, Arts and Entertainment District Task Force meeting. "Our steadfast focus has been – and will continue to be – the revitalization of our campus core. We have concerns about anything that competes for state dollars with that focus."

City officials estimate the entire project would take 10 to 20 years to complete. The first phase is set to begin in 2014, that would include the renovation of Rupp Arena, which is expected to take 2.5 years to complete.

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