Coffee Break: A Yum! Center history lesson

Jack Coffee, Owner, Louisville Sports News
Cardinal Sports

Louisville Metro

Politicians: You can’t live with them and you can’t live without them.

The never-ending debate concerning the finances of the KFC Yum! Center is a good illustration of the above adage.

When the need for an updated arena for the Louisville area was discussed in the early 2000’s there was much debate about where it should be located.

The University desired something on-campus, perhaps the silo property. If that was impossible then another location at the KFEC was desired. Each of those locations would have been much less expensive than any other option.

Many in the community wanted the Water Company site on 2nd Street, and that seemed like a logical location for a downtown arena, but, at the recommendation of the publisher of the Courier-Journal, the LG&E substation site north of Main between 2nd and 3rd was advanced.

That fit the desire of Mayor Jerry Abramson to promote downtown and particularly Main Street and with the impending Museum Plaza to anchor the west end of Main the arena at 2nd and Main was a perfect fit.

In addition, the arena would replace an eyesore that was a blemish to the downtown, the LG&E substation.

After much cajoling, and with the support of the Courier-Journal, the Arena Authority selected the Main Street location despite strong disproval from many in the community including John Schnatter and David Jones who spent $200,000 to authorize a study supporting the less expensive Water Company site.

With the backing of Governors Ernie Fletcher and then Steve Beshear, the state and city with the arena authority developed a financing plan that covered the total cost of the arena project that was to cost $450 million and included a floodwall, parking garage and relocation of the substation that cost over $63 million. In addition Governor Beshear asked for a $3 million upgrade to the plaza on Main Street. Thanks to the politicians, it would now cost $450 million to build a $252 million arena.

After the financing for the arena was in place, the university was asked to provide rent and $2 for every ticket purchased for men’s basketball. The university agreed and every one seemed satisfied that the money to pay the bond indebtedness was sufficient.

Everyone, that is, except for a few of the premium members of who were skeptical that the revenue expected from arena events or the TIF were going to meet the goals. And they were right. The only revenue stream meeting expectations is the payments from the University of Louisville.

Oddly enough, now that the arena is unable to meet its payments, who is being asked to pay the bills? The University of Louisville.

And who is yelling the loudest? The politicians.

That’s one of the problems with politicians, they disappear. The Mayor of Louisville (Abramson) was the one person most supportive of the downtown arena and all the amenities that it provided and the one that pushed the hardest to get UofL on Main Street. Now the Mayor of Louisville (Fisher) is critical of UofL for not paying their fair share. The politicians in Frankfort were all for the financing of the arena, but now one, Christian McDaniel claims that “the taxpayers are being fleeced,” and UofL. Rep. Phil Moffett, R-Louisville, said “the public deserves to know how much the U of L Athletic Association is making from the Yum! Center agreement, and how much the Yum! Center is making.” Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, called for the auditor to follow up with a review of the athletic association’s finances.

Forgive me for being suspicious, but as a Card fan, I know there are many within our state and community that would like to diminish the accomplishments of UofL especially in athletics. If they are from Frankfort, I am especially cynical when legislators from out in the state and in Louisville start to criticize the university.

What the arena financing boils down to is the university being asked to pay for the beautification of downtown Louisville. The school would have been just fine with a $250 million arena at the KFEC or on-campus. UofL has already done their part to beautify the city by tearing down the silos and cleaning up the site.

It’s not the schools fault that the TIF and the events in the arena are below projections. The city and state secured the bonds, not UofL.

My solution? Ask the taxpayers to pay the difference, like you did for the tunnel under the Drumanard Estate. By the way, that place that our politicians said was so important is now for sale, for cheap.

What to Read Next