Oct 122011

By Danny Mayer

If you want to know how the Rupp Arena Arts and Entertainment District Task Force will shake out, look no further than a Friday, April 1, 20011, Lexington Herald-Leader editorial entitled, “Not just another pretty venue.” The editorial lays out all the basic talking points used by virtually every leader and writer covering the topic. It begins with three paragraphs duly noting that, yes, Rupp is already a world-class facility that is the envy of the basketball world, and that, yes, neither the replacement nor the renovation of it should rank high on “Kentucky’s, Lexington’s or the University of Kentucky’s [list of] most pressing needs.”

After making the brief case for why it is utterly useless and irresponsible to do anything at all to Rupp, the editorial spends the final 15 paragraphs rolling out the city and university’s sales pitch to the public, their plan for doing what they’ve just told you they shouldn’t do. Their idea is that a shitty project for the city, state and university can be securitized into one giant super-shitty project that will magically turn profitable for all interested parties.

Coach Calipari, who gets paid $4 million dollars because he coaches in Rupp Arena, and Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart, whose $700,000 salary rests entirely on Coach Calipari’s success on the court, both use the term “gold standard” to describe it. Mayor Jim Gray and the design and development crowd taking part in the Rupp Arena Task Force prefer the phrase, “Now’s the time to dream big.” This latter group aim to use UK’s misguided interest in committing public funds toward a quasi-private basketball team as leverage to secure development funds for the rest of the nearly 50 acre block surrounding Rupp. For city leaders, the imperative to create a downtown “event experience,” what Rupp Task Force chair Brent Rice defines as “a focus on what happens before, during and after an arena event,” is of vital concern to city development.

The Herald-Leader editorial favors the common sense economic rationale. “[M]oving Lexington up the list of attractive places to live or start a company,” it argues, is potentially sufficient reason for pooling large amounts of public money and resources into the creation of an Arena, Arts and Entertainment District where hitherto one did not stand. In the official language of economic policy, the tag line is “Rupp Opportunity Zone.”

And why not? The Rupp boondoggle is a win for all involved parties. In order to better attract 4 world-class basketball recruits a year, UK gets to shower their slice of public money onto a Rupp project that everyone but UK Athletic Association Boosters deem unnecessary. The city and state get to divert public money needed for real public infrastructure projects to attract a small group of “creative” types, a class of economic wizards who apparently circulate the globe on a monster Endless Summer quest for the perfect urban experience. City leaders get to atone for past mistakes in urban planning by paying top city dollar to ensure the most up to date of best design practices—and to reap suitable rewards in the process.

99ers: Read your sports page

The verdict on large-scale public financial support for pricy downtown arena and entertainment districts is disappointing. The boosters running this show haven’t yet acknowledged it, but cities investing in such high cost leisure/entertainment infrastructure projects often find themselves in trouble. Here’s a description by sports journalist Dave Zirin on London’s version of the Rupp Opportunity Zone and its connections to uprisings there this past summer, part of a number of summer uprisings throughout Europe:

“[T]he Olympics aren’t a parallel operation to the mass civic unrest but an aggravator. As social services wither, the Olympics will cost upwards of 20 billion pounds…Ask the residents of Clays Lane Estate, in East London. Clay’s Lane Estate was the largest housing cooperative in the UK, and the second largest in all of Europe. Over protests, Clay’s Lane was demolished to make way for Olympic Facilities. The protests haven’t been heard, and we get riots, or, as Dr. King put it, ‘the language of the unheard.’”

In Vancouver, host of the 2010 Winter Olympics, sports infrastructure planning cost the city nearly a billion dollars. The city recently completed a 563 million dollar renovation at BC Place to house the Vancouver Whitecaps and BC Lions. In Indianapolis, a place the task force visited, the city is paying $10 million per year to help the Indiana Pacers make rent on the Conseco Fieldhouse ($183 million construction in 1999).

This figure is two-thirds of the entire cost to operate the building for the privately owned sports team.

The first of two public hearings has been set for 6 P.M., October 18, at Buster’s on Manchester Street.

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  One Response to “Rupp re-dos and sports event economics”

  1. […] but for us average non-creative schmoes who already live in a given place as well. As Danny Mayer summed it up back in October: The city and state get to divert public money needed for real public infrastructure projects to […]

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