When we checked in on Louisville’s KFC Yum! Center three years ago, the University of Louisville was turning an annual $26.9 million profit on the arena, while the city of Louisville was losing $9.8 million a year. According to two researchers who testified before a state legislative committee last week, that’s changed now — in that the city is doing much, much worse:
Louisville entrepreneur Denis Frankenberger and J. Bruce Miller, senior partner in J. Bruce Miller Law Group of Louisville, told the Kentucky General Assembly’s joint Capital Projects and Bond Oversight Committee on Tuesday that the center lost more than $17 million in 2015 and is losing $1.4 million a month…
[Frankenberger] cited an initial [tax increment financing] revenue stream projected at about $4.5 million the facility opened actually came in at about $615,000. A second-year TIF revenue projection of $6.6 million came in at about $2.1 million…
“The University of Louisville makes $20 million a year on events,” Frankenberger told the committee. “It’s a taxpayer scam.”
A bit of context here: When the city built the arena for the state university for $339 million in 2010, the bonds were supposed to be paid off roughly evenly from city general fund money, luxury suites and arena advertising, and cash from that TIF district (i.e., any increased property taxes collected in the area right around the arena). The university, meanwhile, would collect almost all other revenues from the arena. With the TIF revenue falling short, the city now needs to come up with another way to pay off its share of the bonds (about $13 million a year) plus operating costs, or else let the place go bankrupt.
The good news is that this is mostly just a bookkeeping problem: The city vastly overestimated its future TIF revenue, so now needs to dip into one of its other pockets if it wants to keep up with its arena bond payments. The bad news is that this was going to be city money either way — since even according to the city’s own figures the TIF district was just cannibalizing property taxes that otherwise would have been paid elsewhere in the city, taxpayers were going to be on the hook for more than $200 million worth of bonds regardless. So now it’s just a question of how else to pay off the debt.
State legislators are now demanding that the city renegotiate its lease with the U of L, which sounds great except it’s not clear the city has any leverage to do so, which could result in the university saying, “Yeah, tough break about those TIFs, but we have a contract.” This was a horrible, horrible deal for Louisville residents in the first place, and the TIF shortfall is making that more obvious. But unless the threat of arena bankruptcy somehow gets the U of L to the bargaining table, it’s hard to see how this is much more than posturing.