LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Watch closely business students. University of Kentucky president Eli Capilouto on Thursday executed a perfect example of the walk-away.
Made famous on car lots around the nation, the walk-away serves as a powerful reminder that one can take his business and go home.
Capilouto, after being hounded to make public comment about an arena deal he did not wish to be a public spokesman for, this week fired off a letter to clarify himself. Obtained and first published by the Kentucky Sports Radio blog, the three-page letter is about as close as you get to a public smack-down when it comes to discourse from the upper echelons of academia.
The UK president didn't take to the airwaves. He didn't make his voice heard in the media. But in a private letter that is public record, he came through loud and clear.
There's more than one way to drop the hammer, and Capilouto made it known to Lexington attorney Brent Rice that the university was not going to change or compromise its priorities in focusing on infrastructure improvements, and that it didn't think much of the ever-changing funding efforts that the Lexington arena committee and city government had come up with in recent months. Moreover, he said, the estimate of $35 million in donations from UK fans was probably overly optimistic.
Though, of course, if not for overstated optimism, how would any of this ever happen?
Regardless, Capilouto walked off the lot in his letter to Rice this week, meaning that the Rupp Arena renovation, in its current state, now is dead.
That's no surprise. Funding issues aside, it just didn't have enough steam at the right time to get the state legislative support it needed.
But all is not lost. In some ways, Capilouto simply got away from the dead deal before it could hurt him. The interested parties will show up again, with a better revenue plan, and UK's position in the discussion will be stronger.
For Capilouto, I have two points of praise and one note of criticism.
To the positive, his commitment to building UK's infrastructure and residence halls should be commended. He won't allow UK to be cast as a school that cares more about basketball than about its campus building efforts, even if that's an image the national media likes to cultivate. Through this entire process, Capilouto has made protecting UK's strides in campus infrastructure his top priority, regardless of where the arena discussion headed.
As well, for Capilouto, or any public leader, to look at a funding target and say it is too ambitious is nearly unheard of. Arena and stadium deals are rife with pie-in-the-sky projections that never stand up to reality when the buildings are complete.
The only statement in his letter that Capilouto might regret down the line is his fairly straightforward admission that, "At this time, there is not sufficient public support for committing over $350 million in state, city and other funds to a basketball arena and convention center when there are so many well-recognized educational, economic, retirement and health care needs across Lexington and the Commonwealth of Kentucky."
He cited a Bluegrass poll from The Courier-Journal, which reported that 75 percent of Kentucky voters surveyed didn't think state and local money should be used to fund a basketball arena in Lexington.
A reminder. In 2005, 63 percent of Louisville residents polled didn't think state or public money should fund a downtown arena in Louisville. (For that matter, 47 percent favored a Louisville arena at the Fairgrounds, only 43 percent a downtown arena.)
The lesson there -- those polls mean nothing in the larger scheme of whether these projects get done. A public assertion that the public doesn't want to fund an arena is something that could be used against the effort in the General Assembly.
The other lesson -- these things happen. In these arena discussions there are starts and stops. There are steps forward and backward.
John Shumaker, early in the 2000s, walked away, saying U of L had no interest in playing downtown or in participating in an effort to bring the NBA to Louisville. James Ramsey at one point said U of L was putting the discussion into the state's hands as to where a new arena would go.
In the end, the state is the key partner in all this. Without its support, this project doesn't happen.
There are some major differences in this arena discussion and the one we watched unfold here in Louisville.
In that one, the university wasn't a silent partner, but was out in front of events. In fact, the very first public arena meeting after U of L's 2005 Final Four trip was a joint news conference between U of L and state Fair Board leaders to introduce the concept of a new arena at the Fairgrounds or a renovated Freedom Hall.
That set off a series of events that led to a downtown arena, which Louisville's political leaders badly wanted.
U of L had the leverage of a long contract in Freedom Hall. It didn't have to go anywhere unless a new deal met the terms it wanted in a location it could live with. And U of L had, even at that time, a more modern campus, with newer buildings, and wasn't dealing with such fundamental infrastructure needs at the same time.
Capilouto says UK can't be the catalyst driving a new arena, because it needs to be lobbying for other needs in the General Assembly. But in the end, UK is going to have to get on board actively if this deal is going to happen, or strike out on its own to try to build something independently.
That option has been explored. Mitch Barnhart tried to figure out a private funding option, with IMG Sports, but those efforts fell through. Maybe they'll be resurrected. UK is not without power here, but it also needs a place to play basketball, and has a lease with Rupp Arena that will need to be renewed soon.
What this latest move by Capilouto does is remind leaders that UK has to be satisfied in all of this. It demonstrates, again, for legislators and others that UK is serious about its funding for other projects. And, frankly, it scuttles the current arena committee setup.
But it doesn't shoot the idea of a renovated Rupp out of the water. Money has been spent. Plans have been drawn. Progress has been made.
Capilouto has executed a walk-away. But the state and city will be back, and talks will resume. The UK president has pressed a reset button on some of this, but the effort hasn't self-destructed. Not yet.
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