Clash of the titans: Bucking the establishment, Jones and Schnatter pony up for a new arena study

For months, David Jones, the retired co-founder of Humana, kept receiving packets of information that supported the old Louisville Water Company property (on Muhammad Ali Boulevard, across from the Pendennis Club) as a better and more economical site for a downtown arena than the LG&E site (on Main Street between Second and Third)  that was eventually favored by Gov. Ernie Fletcher’s Louisville Arena Task Force.

David Jones (left), Dean Bonham (center) and John Schnatter (right): chat with questioners after Tuesday’s press conference.  Photo by Cary Stemle

David Jones (left), Dean Bonham (center) and John Schnatter (right): chat with questioners after Tuesday’s press conference. Photo by Cary Stemle

Every time he got a packet, Jones said during a press conference Tuesday morning, he would forward it to the Governor, Mayor Jerry Abramson, Task Force vice-chairman Jim Host and other civic leaders. He would attach a note recommending that the old Water Company site be given the same scrutiny and consideration as the LG&E site.

“And nothing happened,” said Jones.

So Jones did what he’s done his entire working life. He made something happen.

On Monday, Jones and John Schnatter, the Papa John’s Pizza magnate, announced they’re digging into their own deep pockets for $220,000 to hire The Bonham Group of Denver, a nationally respected sports and entertainment consulting firm, to perform a comprehensive comparison of the two sites.

The Bonham Group was given no marching orders except to have its work completed by Feb. 28 so its conclusions could be used by the Jefferson County legislative delegation to help it decide whether to support the LG&E site during the current meeting of the General Assembly.

The LG&E site was the brainchild of Ed Manassah, former publisher of The Courier-Journal. Even its supporters acknowledge it’s far more costly than the Water Company site. A part of the reason is that LG&E would have to move transmitters and other equipment, and Humana would have to raze a couple of buildings on the site.

Asked if his financing of the new study by The Bonham Group could be interpreted as a schism with Humana, Jones said, “I once worked there, but I no longer do.” And in that simple sentence, he spoke volumes about the significance of what he and Schnatter are doing.

In Louisville, where the power is closely and tightly held by a select few, it’s big news — earth-shaking news — when a couple of leaders as powerful as Jones and Schnatter take on the very establishment of which they are card-carrying members.

During the summer, Schnatter was the only member of the 17-person Task Force member who took Jones’ notes about the old Water Company site to heart. He also cast the only dissenting vote against recommending the LG&E site to Fletcher — mainly because he believed the Water Company site hadn’t been given a fair shot.

After the vote, Schnatter said he believed the selection process had not been conducted with integrity or transparency; that Host had played fast and loose with facts and numbers; and that the arena would cost far more than the $299 million figure approved by the Task Force.

Sure enough, the Fletcher administration admitted in January that the arena’s projected cost was $349 million, not $299 million. That caught Jones’ attention. So did Host’s contention that the arena at the LG&E site would pay for itself off only 113 events a year, not the 158 figure that the Task Force used.

In effect, Schnatter and Jones now are doing the work that should have been done by the Task Force and The Courier-Journal. Given the dramatic rise in cost and sharp reduction in dates, the C-J should have used its vast resources to conduct an independent study of the relative merits of the two sites.

That’s what a great newspaper would have done. That’s what the C-J of the Binghams would have done. But the C-J of Gannett, its journalistic integrity compromised by Manassah’s behind-the-scenes machinations, chose instead to bully the state legislators who are simply asking the questions the newspaper should have been asking on the public’s behalf.

Indeed, the C-J has proven it’s quite capable of imitating the Bush administration’s discredited P.R. strategy regarding the war in Iraq. Just as the Bushies label anti-war protestors as “unpatriotic,” so has the C-J labeled the dissidents among the Jefferson County legislative delegation as “divisive” and “small thinkers.”

Surely, not even the C-J editorial board will be so brazen as to try to pin those labels on Jones and Schnatter.

Both Jones and Schnatter said that if The Bonham Group concludes that the LG&E site is, indeed, the better one, they will support it whole-heartedly. (Schnatter has already pledged $5 million to the new arena, wherever it’s located).

“We’re not here to point fingers or say anybody did anything wrong,” Schnatter said. “If all the cards are on the table and everybody plays it straight, you come up with the best solution. This is what I’ve wanted all along.”

As the Bonham Group goes quickly about its work, the rest of us are left to ponder the breath-taking stupidity required to blow off men with the stature, success and savvy of Jones and Schnatter.