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February 21, 2006

Your Weekly Reeder: Clock’s running on the arena — but there will be other games

The arena debate is wearing us all out. It’s like it used to be with basketball teams coached by Rick Pitino. They would press and press and press until the other team cracked. Now, fearing another debacle with no end game, like the Ohio River bridges, we have reached the point where some are saying it’s time to do something, anything, even if it’s wrong, instead of letting this thing drag on.

As the saying goes, fatigue makes cowards of us all.

Obviously, this is dangerous. We’re talking about a project that may cost up to $450 million or more. It will be expected to serve us well for at least 50 years, as Freedom Hall has, because Louisville — unlike Indianapolis, Memphis, Seattle or Charlotte — isn’t one of those cities that seems able to build arenas and stadiums almost on a whim.

So, tedious though it may be, we must stay the course. We must be wise, careful, frugal, responsible and truthful with each other. If — heaven forbid! — that means tabling this decision for another six months or a year, that will be a small price to pay for doing the right thing.

After serving as spokesman for the Arena Task Force until I left state government in late July, and after observing the process with a great deal of interest from that time until now, I’ve reached some conclusions I’d like to share with you.

I believe Louisville needs — and I used that word advisedly — a downtown arena as the crown jewel in the city’s revitalization plan.

As far as whether it’s built at the LG&E site or the old Water Company site, I’m in favor of what’s best for the city — and I mean ALL of the city, not just the corporations, bankers, lawyers and other affluent folks.

I do not believe it has to be a 22,000-seat arena with all of the bells and whistles. In fact, Stephen George, our music editor, tells me that whenever Louisville is passed over by concert promoters, it’s often because we don’t have a good, mid-sized 15,000-seat arena. There’s nothing to plug the gap between Freedom Hall and The Palace.

I believe the University of Louisville should have an on-campus arena with around 18,000 seats. It is not in the best interests of the university’s students to have the arena built downtown. They need a place where they can walk to events if they want, or pay a reasonable parking fee if they don’t.

Besides, it’s unreasonable and unfair to expect any college program in America to be the primary tenant of an arena — and, therefore, largely responsible for its fiscal success. It puts too much pressure on a coach and on his players. It has nothing to do with a university’s academic integrity.
Of the total number of dates in the new arena — the working number has dropped from 158 to 113 — U of L will be responsible for less than one-third, counting both men’s and women’s home games.

Even if you assume that every men’s home game continues to be a sellout (and that’s no guarantee, as we saw in the latter years of the Denny Crum era), the women’s program simply does not have the fan base to come close to filling a 22,000-seat arena once a year, much less on a regular basis.

That’s no slam at women’s basketball. It’s just a fact. And unless women’s hoops has a NASCAR-caliber growth spurt, it’s impossible to make the case that a U of L women’s home game will generate much revenue or promote economic development in downtown Louisville.

So I’d like to see Governor Ernie take his $75 million and give it to U of L as a down payment on a campus arena, and I’d like to see Mayor Jerry take his $100 million and get the downtown business community to match it so a mid-sized arena, suitable for today’s concert crowds, can be built at the old Water Company site.

And what about Freedom Hall?

Don’t worry about the old girl. She’ll be filled with enough tractor pulls, rodeos, horse shows and other events that appeal to animal-lovers, farmers, truck drivers and others who are of a, well, earthy persuasion.

This plan makes too much sense, so you can bet it won’t happen. Let’s also assume the study commissioned by David Jones and John Schnatter proves, decisively, that the old Water Company site makes far more sense than the LG&E site.

It won’t make any difference, unless the Jefferson County legislative delegation finds the moral courage to stand up to the LG&E site promoters: Jim Host, The Courier-Journal, Mayor Jerry, Governor Ernie, President Jim, and so on — and make them talk philosophically about what the arena should do for the city, other than providing U of L a new place to play basketball.
I believe that for a city to be truly great, it must stand for tolerance, diversity and inclusion. Tolerant of others’ religious and political views.

Diverse enough to welcome people of different cultures. Inclusive enough so every citizen, regardless of his or her socioeconomic circumstances, feels that he or she matters.

History tells us that sports arenas and entertainment venues — far more than churches or even public schools — are the places where people will gather willingly to spend their leisure time and their leisure dollars.

Long before “whites only” lunch counters were abandoned in the Old South, Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays were stars in major league baseball. Long before Brown v. Board of Education (1954), White America was tapping its toes to the likes of Duke Ellington, Louie Armstrong and Billie Holiday.

So any arena should be built for all of the people of our city, not just a select few. It should be the proverbial “melting pot” where affordable entertainment is available for all of our citizens, not just the elite who can afford the exorbitant prices being charged these days to watch pro and college sports, which really are one and the same at the top level.

No citizen should be left behind or left out. Every working man or woman should be able to afford tickets to at least a couple of events a year in the new arena. One condition of any lease signed by U of L or anybody else should a requirement that a certain number of good tickets are reserved and sold to those who can’t afford season tickets or don’t know somebody who owns a luxury box.

And notice I said good seats. Back in the ugly days of segregation, blacks were confined to the balconies of our downtown theaters. That was due to law and custom. The last thing a new arena should generate is a new wave of de facto segregation, this time on socioeconomic grounds.

The truth be told, we have five separate and distinct cities within one: East End, South End, West End, Downtown and Southern Indiana. They are separated by far more than a few miles. They are separated by decades of distrust, animosity, fear, ignorance and tradition.

If a new arena cannot help us scale those barriers, if it cannot help us become a truly great city on a human level as much as a business level, then, well, what’s the point? If we can’t answer that question fully and honestly, then maybe the power brokers should call off the press and give everyone a little more time to think.