Lexington mayor suspends efforts to renovate Rupp Arena, building new convention center


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Lexington Mayor Jim Gray on Wednesday suspended a $351 million plan to renovate the home of University of Kentucky men's basketball and build a new downtown convention center, revealing that university leaders recently floated the idea of a much smaller arena project.

Gray said he decided to indefinitely halt efforts to upgrade Rupp Arena after UK withdrew its support for a proposed annual $10.7 million lease at Rupp, beginning in 2018. In recent meetings, UK officials discussed the possibility of a scaled-back arena upgrade, the mayor said.

"We designed this arena based on what UK said they needed," the mayor said in a statement. "But I understand timing and pacing are everything, especially with major projects like this. So we'll adjust and adapt."

Gray said the scaled-back option raised by UK would greatly reduce its financial stake, perhaps to a level amounting to 10 percent to 15 percent of the university's original investment in the project under the lease.

"That means a significant reset," Gray said in a phone interview.

UK spokesman Jay Blanton said the university did not have any immediate comment.

The project to renovate Rupp Arena and build a new convention center had suffered setbacks in recent months.

State lawmakers refused to provide state-supported bonding for the project. Their decision came soon after the Wildcats played for another national championship this spring. Kentucky came up just short, losing to Connecticut.

UK President Eli Capilouto later wrote a letter withdrawing support for the arena and convention center project, citing lack of public support.

City and university officials had continued meeting to discuss the project.

Gov. Steve Beshear, a participant in recent meetings over the project, continued to tout the original proposal in a statement Wednesday.

"I think the original project is still what Lexington and the university need, and in time, I hope UK will be ready to move forward," Beshear said.

Gray said he supports the original plan because it would create permanent jobs in the area.

"I have a lot of confidence in this plan," he said. "It's a very cost-efficient plan."

But he said he's learned through experience "never to fall in love with a project. We need to move on. And when the time is right, the plan is ready."

The plan would separate the decades-old home of Kentucky men's basketball from an adjoining convention center. It would retain Rupp's 23,500-seat capacity but included adding luxury seating, chair-back seats in the arena's second tier and an additional concourse.

The project also included moving and expanding the convention center to the west of the current complex. The financial plan called for state, city, university and private money.

Gray said the city can still focus on parts of the project, including a proposed Town Branch Park planned for west of the Rupp Arena project, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported. The city also owns a parking lot, across from Rupp, that has potential to become a prime retail development, he said.

Also, the suspension means the convention center can now book conventions for 2015 and 2016, Gray said.

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