In an interview on WLOU 1350 Saturday morning, University of Louisville Athletics Director Tom Jurich said that its teams should stop playing at the KFC Yum! Center because of city leaders’ rhetoric blaming the school for the arena’s financial troubles, and instead build an arena on campus.
The interview took place two days after the Metro Council Budget Committee debated a proposed ordinance that would lock the city into maximum annual payments to the Louisville Arena Authority over the next two decades, provided that UofL altered its lease to allow more revenue to go toward the arena’s debt payments, which will soon escalate significantly.
Several council members stated that the lease should be altered because it was too favorable to the university, an opinion that has been shared in recent months by a wide variety of officials — including state legislators on an oversight committee, Arena Authority Chairman Scott C. Cox and Gov. Matt Bevin.
Jurich’s comments, reported Tuesday in The Courier-Journal, took particular aim at city leaders, saying UofL’s presence as the anchor tenant at the Yum! Center had transformed downtown Louisville and “we’re very tired of all the rhetoric.” He added that criticism of the school’s lease conditions as a major factor in the arena’s difficulty meeting debt payments had “changed the whole conversation to blame it on the university, and I think that’s criminal.”
Jurich said that UofL was “baited” into a downtown location for its arena instead of building one on campus, suggesting that if the city no longer wants them there they should now leave the Yum! Center, and he’d “love to” build a new arena on its Belknap campus, where silos were recently razed near I-65.
“Well, I think we should,” said Jurich, when told by the radio host that it would hurt the city if UofL left the Yum! Center. “I don’t think we’re wanted down there, so I think we should.”
Jurich also cited the city’s record-high homicide totals this year in response to a question about crime downtown, and said that UofL is willing to help with the arena’s debt, “but I don’t want to be the only one that helps.”
In the middle of his criticism of unnamed city leaders, Jurich added that “I really appreciate this governor, and I want to do anything that I can to help and support him, but he’s the only one I really want to help.”
However, Bevin told WDRB last month that UofL’s arena lease needed to be “adjusted” so that the Louisville Arena Authority could avoid defaulting on its debt payments, as “it’s very generous from one direction.” That same opinion has been shared by members of both parties from the state legislature’s Capital Projects and Bond Oversight Committee, long before several Metro Council members — particularly Brent Ackerson, D-26, and Bill Hollander, D-9, — blasted the lease conditions in the budget committee last week.
As IL recently reported, the revenue and net income of the UofL men’s basketball program has far exceeded every other NCAA basketball program in the country since moving into the Yum! Center in 2010.
Cox of the arena authority hailed the conditions of the proposed ordinance as a compromise in which all of the arena stakeholders would share the pain: The city would lift its total minimum payments to the arena by a potential $80 million, so long as the state would lengthen the TIF district by a decade and UofL altered its lease to allow more revenue to go toward the arena’s debt payments.
Cox estimated that the amount of revenue directed away from UofL and toward the arena authority for debt payments would have to be “seven figures.” Once all three partners come to a resolution, Cox said, the arena authority would be able to refinance its debt, which it hopes to do before interest rates increase.
The proposed ordinance was tabled Thursday, as several members objected to increasing the city’s minimum payments to the arena, saying the university should act first. The legislation will come up again at the budget committee meeting Friday afternoon.
UofL spokesman John Karman told IL that acting university president Neville Pinto would have no comment on Jurich’s statements. Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer released a statement only saying that “the city, state and UL share a desire to have a financially successful Yum Center and are working toward that goal.”
Amanda Stamper, the spokeswoman for Gov. Bevin, did not respond to an email and voicemail seeking comment on Jurich’s threat.
Cox told IL Tuesday afternoon that he understands Jurich’s frustration with criticism, as the university negotiated its lease in good faith and lived up to its terms for eight years.
“I think that he just feels that any criticism of the university, or him personally, is unfair, and I do to,” said Cox. “It’s not warranted by the history of this situation or anything he’s done. He’s been a good partner.”
Cox added that he has met with Jurich and his associate many times over the past few months to negotiate new terms for UofL’s lease, “and they’ve been easy to deal with and met me every time we’ve requested.”
“I went to Mr. Jurich four or five months ago and told him about our financial issues and asked him if he would help and re-open negotiations on the lease, and he said that he would,” said Cox. “He said he wanted everyone to be involved, all of the partners who help fund the arena, that they would do their part and be team players.”
Cox was reluctant to assign any motive to Jurich’s threat on Saturday, but remained confident that an agreement would be reached eventually, as “I can’t tell you that we’ll have a new deal with them tomorrow or next week or next month, but I think we will soon.”
“I will tell you that they really like playing there,” said Cox. “They realize it’s the best arena in the ACC and probably the nation. They’re proud to call it their home, and I’m convinced they’ll be there not only for the during of their contract, but for many decades to come after that. I think this will all work out… Everything is going to be fine.”
As for Metro Council, Cox says he was told by several members that at Friday’s budget committee meeting they will debate and potentially pass a non-binding resolution in support of the basic ideas in the proposed ordinance. Cox will also attend that meeting to answer any questions.
While Cox supports the proposed ordinance, he added that “it’s also true that Metro Council has a job to do, and they’ve got responsibilities to their constituents and they’ve got to do their due diligence before they make decisions about taxpayer money. So I understand Mr. Jurich’s frustration, I understand they’re just doing their job. And I’m convinced that we’ll have an agreement when all of this is finished that’s satisfactory to all of the parties.”
This story has been updated.