What Could Be
The Rupp Task Force Recs
by David Schankula
The final public meeting of Jim Gray’s Rupp Area Task Force was a collegial affair.
A lot of thank yous, a lot of backslapping, a lot of good times.
But where have they gotten us?
Their work was privately financed, and it brought together leaders from the arts, business and public sector communities. They retained a high-end design firm. They looked at the options — or, most of them; the idea of just leaving everything just as it is was never in consideration.
Many aimed derision at the very idea of the ‘task force’, that tool of governments everywhere to put off tough decisions and come up with murky, unachieavable reccommendations. But there was a rhyme and a reason to this task force and if you accept that there’s a great opportunity to remake downtown, then forcing this collection of mucketymucks to work together and come to a common understanding, if nothing else, increases the chances for actual action.
Is action needed? Do we need a renewed Rupp Arena, a new Convention Center? Do we need a better array of retail in that corner of downtown now marked by wide swaths of empty concrete that could instead be public space, sports fields, an arts school, a music venue?
Those are the results of the Task Force. That is their final report. An arena no longer sheathed in concrete and beige but instead opened up, the packaging stripped away, replaced with a translucent exterior, more seats, video boards. A convention center demolished, removed and moved behind Rupp into a series of buildings, a campus atmosphere divided by public space. A retail space inviting customers instead of the cavernous shell we now have.
That’s $250 to 300 million right there. In addition, the task force report endorses a restructured parking system, the conversion of the High Street parking lot into sports fields and the Cox Street one into more public space. Fayette County Public Schools will contemplate a new school; the newly for-sale Victorian Square could, finally, be useful; Triangle Park could become a square with Vine truncated.
But that’s just a series of ‘could bes’ and, for that matter, that’s all we’ve gotten. The Rupp and Convention plan presented in this final report is a ‘could be.’ It’s not funded and that’s the next step.
How do you find $300 million at a time many people can’t even find a job? The first step is getting $3.5 million from Gov. Beshear and the state and another $1.5 million from Lexington’s own strapped budget. With that five mil, the task force hopes to develop a fiscal plan after first checking the engineering realities.
After all that’s done, they’ve still got to get $300 million. And that’s assuming they get the first five. All this at a time when Louisville’s Yum! Center is teetering toward junk bond status after its TIF financing platform failed to see its courageous rate of return, the city of Lexington is making difficult economic decisions and the Governor is slashing $50 million in education funding while retaining $43 million in tax breaks for a dinosaur-populated Bible theme park.
There’s a lot of reason for cynicism. There are a lot of bad decisions made by those in power, made over and over. And, at the same time, there is a nation of Blue demanding an arena for a state-run basketball team that, whether you like it or not, generates value for the city and state.
If the Task Force is to be believed, at what they admit is their most optimistic, the new convention center and arena will be completed by 2017. That will take creative financing and that’s their next step — finding $300 million from 14 different sources, ranging from ticket sales and TIF revenue, to naming rights and state funding.
The most immediate step is getting that $3.5 million from Frankfort, but even if that happens, the process isn’t over and for those opposed, there’s still plenty of time to fight. For those entertaining the ‘could bes,’ there’s still time to get involved and possibly shape the future.
For those others — the ones who demanded a Louisville-style new arena regardless of the cost or good-sense — the fight is already lost.
This article appears on page 4 of the February 9, 2012 print edition of Ace.