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February 13, 2007

The arena: a disaster in the making

Stop the madness. Stop it now, while there’s still time. The downtown civic and business leaders should put their egos aside and table the plans for the new downtown Louisville arena. It will not be a poor reflection on the city. To the contrary, it will make us look smart.Super-salesman Jim Host, who can make numbers dance and jump through hoops, told the Downtown Rotary Club last week that he has so far been unable to sell naming rights to the arena. The revenue for the naming rights — which started at $100 million for 20 years and now has been downsized to $40 million for the same period — always was an integral part of the fragile and complicated financing plan that Host sold to the University of Louisville, the mayor, the governor and the media.But now Host is saying it’s no big deal. The arena can move forward without money from the naming rights. There’s already enough money promised for signage, suites and so on to sell the bonds. This is Host hubris at its best — or its worst. It also should be a flashing neon warning sign to the community and the state.Why put the arena on hold immediately? Let us count the ways.1) Other than Rupp Arena, there’s no major city in the nation where a university team is the principal tenant of a state-of-the-art civic arena. And in those cities where universities share an arena with an NBA team, the NBA team runs the show and the university team is a second-class citizen.2) U of L Athletics Director Tom Jurich made a mistake by agreeing to be the principal tenant. This puts too much pressure on his coach and his players. They must be good enough to fill the place every time they play. They can never have an NIT-caliber season, such as the one U of L is experiencing now. Jurich should have held out for a campus arena or a renovation of Freedom Hall.3) When you ask a college team to be the principal tenant of one of the most expensive arenas ever built in this country, you are essentially turning it into a professional franchise. Given his long history with the NCAA, Host should be the first one to oppose that. The professionalization and commercialization of college sports are major concerns to the Knight Commission and others that monitor college sports.4) U of L already generates more revenue from its men’s basketball program than any university in the nation. How much more money does it need to make, especially with the football program now becoming a big money-maker?5) Host’s projections are based on filling the arena to near its 21,000-seat capacity a minimum of 110 times a year. Maybe U of L men’s basketball will fill it 18 times. The women’s team won’t draw enough fans to pay the electric bill. So what other events are you going to put in there that will fill the place enough times to make the numbers work? There simply are not enough concerts, ice shows, circuses, etc., to fill the dates.6) Some of the events that normally would go into a downtown arena will prefer to stay at Freedom Hall, a great place for horse shows, rodeos, tractor pulls and the like. The fans who support those events would much rather go to Freedom Hall than downtown Louisville. It’s the same with, say, a George Strait concert. A lot of his fans are what you might call rednecks, the Pabst Blue Ribbon crowd, and they simply don’t want to go to downtown Louisville.7) Parking and traffic at an arena on the riverfront will be such a nightmare that U of L fans will kick themselves for ever complaining about Ring Road. Let’s go over this again. The arena site is bound by the Ohio River, a bridge, the Galt House and Main Street. What kind of traffic flow will you get out of that? Oh, yeah. Parking also will cost at least twice as much as it does now. Count on it.8) Another key component of the Host plan is building a hotel next to the arena, just like they did in Lexington with the Hyatt next to Rupp Arena. We don’t need another hotel on Main Street, especially with a new one going up with the Museum Plaza project. Host apparently did not mention the hotel at the Rotary Club meeting, which makes you wonder how those negotiations are coming along.9) I don’t care if Freedom Hall is 50 years old. It’s still one of the best places in the nation to watch a basketball game. The ticket prices now already are beyond the reach of many Louisvillians. It will only be more expensive in the new arena, putting even more fans out of the market. Count on it.10) The same people who can’t afford to buy U of L tickets now will help pay for the new arena through new taxes of some sort or another. The arena spin doctors will call them surcharges or something other than taxes. But taxes are what they will be. Shouldn’t we have a community-wide referendum on whether the people really want this thing? Of course we should. But we haven’t because the downtown business leaders know the community would reject this House of Cards.The Arena Authority should be disbanded. The state should use its $75 million for something more important. So should the city. U of L should continue to seek an on-campus arena or a renovation of Freedom Hall. Killing this thing is not a bad reflection on Louisville, like the bridge fiasco. Ask Memphis, where The Pyramid, a relatively new and perfectly fine facility on the Ohio River, now is a total white elephant for which the citizens are still paying.Who, though, has the guts to step up and pull the plug on this disaster in the making? You, Mayor Jerry? You, Tom Jurich? Somebody needs to be willing to do our community a great service and tell Host to go back to Lexington and concentrate on raising money for the 2010 World Equestrian Championships, another of his pet projects that, by the way, is going to cost a lot more than he originally told us it would. Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com