Despite popularity, KFC Yum! Center remains magnet for controversy

More than a little confusing some of the recent activities related to the management of the KFC Yum! Center, possibly suggesting that the community should be bracing for some unsettling news about the sparkling home of University of Louisville basketball.

First the revelation a week ago that Governor Steve Beshear wants Harold Workman fired as chief executive officer of the State Fair Board, which manages the Center. Workman, who has held the position since 1993, has generally been held in high esteem for his management of Fair Board facilities. Never a hint of mismanagement until recently, even though the losses of UofL basketball and Kentucky Kingdom were taking a toll on the Exposition Center.

Then the surprising announcement Monday that the Fair Board had fired Ted Nicholson, the general manager of the KFC Yum! Center. No reason given for the firing, the news coming as a surprise to Jim Host, the chairman of the Louisville Arena Authority. Just a few months ago, Host was describing Nicholson as the perfect individual for the position. On Tuesday, the Fair Board actually requested that Nicholson be reinstated.

None of this makes any sense and no explanations appear to be forthcoming. The only consistent thread is that the arena has been controversial from the beginning and that Jerry Abramson has been been involved in one way or another. That, and Workman was never a public target during Beshear’s first four years in office.

The KFC Yum! Center wouldn’t exist had Workman not proposed a new arena to replace Freedom Hall seven years ago. That was what finally shook then-Mayor Abramson out of his lethargy, kickstarting serious discussions of a downtown arena for UofL. Jim Ramsey and Tom Jurich wanted the arena at the Fairgrounds or on campus. There were reportedly shouting matches behind closed doors at Belknap Campus between Abramson and university officials. And we know who won that battle.

Then there was the controversy over whether to build it on the Louisville Water Company (LWC) site in the center city or on the riverfront site, which was opposed by Humana founder David Jones and Papa John’s John Schnatter, openly rejecting Abramson’s choice, arguing that the LWC site was more feasible. They were joined by House Speaker Larry Clark, from Louisville, a long-time obstructionist when it comes to UofL projects. However, Senate Chairman David Williams miraculously supported the riverfront site and was instrumental in removing the final Frankfort obstacle.

The most plausible explanation for the current personnel controversies is that Abramson is using his new leverage as Lieutenant Governor to settle some old scores. While Abramson has always been good at garnering votes, he was never popular with many business owners or city employees.

The new arena has made possible new attendance records for both UofL men’s and women’s basketball games. This, plus all the sold-out big name concerts, has generated new levels of activity downtown. However, anticipated revenues from the special taxing district are falling short of expectations. We’re also awaiting word on whether the arena was able to deliver on Jim Host’s projection of $500,000 to $1.2 million in profit during the arena’s first full year of operation.

A financial report should be forthcoming soon. We wouldn’t be surprised if the connections behind the personnel controversies become less vague. A setting up of fall guys has begun for some reason.

Big fan of the Lady Cards

Among familiar faces courtside at University of Louisville women’s basketball games for several seasons have been those of former Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson and his wife Madeline. Their chairs are actually just off the playing floor, along with those of several major boosters of the program. Will be interesting to see if the Abramsons retain those seats if his ticket is successful in the 2010 gubernatorial race. Abramson is running for Lieutenant Governor as a running mate to Steve Beshear.