State budget cuts put arena in question

Architect\’s rendering

While Northern Kentucky University announced this fall a tentative completion date of 2005 for the much-anticipated NKU Arena, dubbed the Regional Special Events Center, the slow economy may delay the project. Because of the slowing economy, the state of Kentucky was forced to cut its budget by $600 million dollars.

“This may make it hard for the state to find money for the center’s $43 million price tag,” said NKU regent and local business owner Bill Erpenbeck.

If the state were to fund the RSEC, it would be the most ambitious construction project in NKU’s history. Erpenbeck, along with state representatives and the president of Peoples Bank of Northern Kentucky, John Finnan, formed a committee to lobby the state to allocate funds for the project. To help reduce the cost, the committee is trying to sell naming rights to the center for $4 million, leaving $39 million left to be picked up by the state. Erpenbeck said he is optimistic NKU will eventually receive all the funding, but it may be a hard road ahead.

“It’s not by any stretch of the imagination a done deal,” Erpenbeck said. “It is much more difficult today than it was eight months ago.”

The center has widespread support from state legislators, said Joe Wind, assistant vice president of community and government relations, because Northern Kentucky is the only region in the state without a major events facility. He said, though, while NKU enjoys the legislator’s moral support, the possibility of financial support is looking considerably more grim after Sept. 11.

“This project enjoys unprecedented support from the government,” Wind said. “It is unfortunate that as we have this level of support, the economy is in a downturn.”

Two local state representatives, Jim Callahan, D-Wilder, and John Draud, R-Crestview Hills, are working with Erpenbeck and Finnan to fund the RSEC. Callahan said with the staggering economy, the best way for Kentucky. to fund the center is by borrowing through state bonds. Interest rates are as low as they are going to get, he said, and now is the time to go into debt. Callahan said the investment for the state is worthwhile because the 6,500-seat center will be an important asset to the surrounding community, allowing Northern Kentucky to bring larger scale events to the area.

“The value comes back to the Northern Kentucky region,” Callahan said.

Getting the naming rights sold to a company will be key to persuading the legislator in allotting more money for the project, Callahan said..

“If we get a sizable amount of money for the naming rights of the facility, then we will have something more to persuade them down in Frankfurt,” Callahan said.

The future of the RSEC will become more clear in January 2002 when Gov. Paul Patton announces the state’s budget.

In a speech Patton delivered at NKU on Nov. 14, he reinforced his support of college education and vowed to support it as strongly as possible.

“The leadership of Kentucky has made a commitment to education, and it will sustain that commitment,” Patton said.

While the budget may cast doubts, NKU president James Votruba said there is still a good chance the center can be completed by 2005.

“I think even in a tight budget, there will be opportunities to fund capital projects for economic development in our region,” Votruba said. “This Special Events Center is an important engine for economic development.”