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'Northern Kentucky Has More Influence Now in Frankfort Than It Has Ever Had'

Political 'Perfect Storm' Hails Approval of NKU Arena Funding


Community leaders have talked about building a regional events center at Northern Kentucky University for years. The region came close to getting funding for such a facility in 1990.

The 1990-92 budget originally presented by then-Gov. Wallace Wilkinson contained funding for a combination arena-convocation center at NKU. But the funding was lost when some area lawmakers voted against the Kentucky Education Reform Act and, as a political consequence, Wilkinson withdrew the $19 million for an NKU arena and built an arena at Murray State University instead.

Funding for an NKU arena was again sought in the 2002 General Assembly, but it fell victim to a combination of the post-Sept. 11 economy and a tight state budget with a $500-million-plus deficit.

Gov. Ernie Fletcher visited NKU's Highland Heights campus last April to announce he was proposing funding for the arena in his 2004 budget.

"It is the only university that has a high school gym. And it is the only university that we have in Kentucky that doesn't have a special-events center that it requires and needs," Fletcher said.

But that plan was a casualty of the 2004 legislative budget stalemate.

Now, 15 years after first being proposed, funding for the arena appears to be as close to a sure thing as is possible until Fletcher actually signs a Legislature-approved budget.

The Kentucky House approved $42 million in funding for the arena in its version of the budget bill, and the Senate increased that number by $12 million to $54 million, all while paring funding for other capital projects at Fletcher's request. The budget bill was in a conference committee as of the Challenger's press deadline Friday, but the only question remaining about NKU arena funding was how much: $42 million? $54 million? Some number in between?

What's Changed?

So what's going on here? A region that historically has been under-funded and under-appreciated by the State Legislature's bean counters suddenly has the biggest capital project in the Kentucky budget. What's changed between 1990, when the arena plan was first proposed, to now?

"Northern Kentucky and Northern Kentucky University are doing a better job of telling their story, and the members of the Legislature are more receptive to the message," said Gary Toebben, president of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.

"Northern Kentucky has more influence now in Frankfort than it has ever had," said State Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, whose district includes southern Kenton County. He attributed that influence to a "perfect storm" of political factors.

The Legislature and Gov. Fletcher appreciate NKY as a "significant driver to Kentucky's economic engine," Thayer said. "The governor is committed to Northern Kentucky and to a special events center at NKU."

Also contributing to NKY's increased influence are the region's four Republican senators in that chamber's majority caucus, and the elevation of State Sen. Katie Stine, R-Fort Thomas, to the position of Senate President Pro Tem this year.

"NKU and Campbell County are in her district," Thayer said.

Stine said the influence of her new position "is a tool that can be used to get things done in the Senate. But we can pass everything and it won't mean anything if the House doesn't support it."

Economic Impact

NKU President James Votruba's estimate of the special events center's annual economic impact in the region is $4 million, and he said the special events center would "leverage between $30 million and $40 million in development around the university and near the campus."

The "multiplier effect" - the effect that an increase in spending produces on income and consumption greater than the initial amount spent - of the special events center project would be $100 million, Votruba said.

"It will be an enormous economic development catalyst for the region - certainly for Campbell County and around the university," he said.

The Senate's version of the budget bill also maintained the $14.07 million in funding for expansion of Gateway Community and Technical College's Edgewood campus approved in the House version.

This article was published March 6, 2005, in The Sunday Challenger, serving Northern Kentucky, and on ChallengerNKY.com.

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