Bill Owen enjoys his last official day on the job at his beloved Rupp Arena (Dr. Michael Huang Photo).

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – If those Rupp Arena walls could talk, I’m sure they’d sound a lot like Bill Owen.

Owen, President and CEO of Lexington Center Corporation for twenty-two years, retired from his position as chief cook and bottle washer for one of Lexington’s most iconic and recognizable public-gathering facilities on December 31, 2022. A big Kentucky basketball fan, Owen appropriately spent his last official day on the job—at Rupp Arena—watching the Wildcats dismantle their in-state rival, the Louisville Cardinals.

“You can’t grow up in Lexington and not be a Wildcat fan,” Owen explained. “When I was in high school, I had a paper route, and [UK Athletics Director] Bernie Shively was one of my customers. Once a month, I would go to Memorial Coliseum and walk past Coach Adolph Rupp’s office, and Bernie Shively would pay me my $3.20.”

Growing up Blue

As such, Owen’s connection to Lexington and the University of Kentucky was solidified early on. Born in Gainesville, Georgia, Owen moved to Lexington when he was only two years old. His father served as head pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, so the preacher’s kid grew up in the Ashland Park area of the city, attending Cassidy Elementary, Morton Junior High, and Henry Clay High School.

Owen would naturally go on to attend the University of Kentucky. After graduating with a degree in history (class of ’73), he surprisingly found himself working in commercial real estate development and asset management. Six years learning from Wallace Wilkinson (before he became governor) and another six years working with the renowned Webb Brothers honed his business skills to a tee. That led directly to Owen taking on his Chief Administrative/Financial Officer role for Lexington Center Corporation in 1991. Nine years later, when Tom Minter retired, Owen took on the role of President and CEO.

Lexington Center Transformation

If you somehow hadn’t noticed, the Lexington Center recently underwent a transformative facelift under Owen’s dedicated watch. The project was unique—not a mere renovation, mind you, but rather a virtual complete replacement and restoration. Because most indoor sports venues traditionally have short shelf lives, you won’t find many comparable basketball arenas like Rupp—not only surviving, but still relevant and thriving forty-five years after initial construction.

“They blew up Charlotte Coliseum after only nineteen years,” Owen ruefully recounted. “I’ve got underwear that’s older than that.”

In today’s climate, working with a daunting $310 million budget is nothing to scoff at, and Owen made sure every penny of it was properly distributed and allocated in this latest rebuild. The result is a brand spanking new looking Lexington Center, a shining beacon of pride within the local civic, arts, and business communities. None of that would have been possible without Bill Owens spearheading the charge.

And what a fabulous charge it’s been. Big-time concerts, memorable sporting events, and world-renowned visitors are all part of Lexington Center Corporation’s rich and vibrant pedigree crafted during Owen’s sparkling tenure.

Rupp Arena

The parade of concerts featuring A-list celebrities visiting Rupp Arena is long and lengthy—everybody from Paul McCartney to Elton John to Tina Turner. Owen specifically remembers being wound tighter than a banjo string the time he booked Turner. When it came time for her sound check the day of the concert, the “queen of rock ‘n’ roll” was nowhere to be found. It turns out her limo driver had mistakenly taken her to Louisville instead of Lexington. Fortunately, with the help of a police escort and a slight curtain delay, the Rupp audience rocked for a full two and a half hours as Owen looked on in relief.

Then there was the Garth Brooks concert on Halloween weekend in 2014. If you remember, Brooks played four performances over two nights in front of 70,000 adoring fans. Over the years, Owen admits to becoming somewhat celebrity desensitized, but he remembers meeting Garth backstage and talking about their kids attending the same colleges.

“By gosh, here I am standing here talking to Garth Brooks, and it’s like I’m talking to another dad I just met at a tailgate,” said Owen, himself a proud father of three.

The very next night, however, it was back to reality as the University of Kentucky hosted Pikeville in a college basketball game. When it came to Rupp Arena, there was never a dull moment.

“What that building contributes to the community,” Owen gushed. “Obviously it’s the home of UK Basketball, which is its marquee and our most important relationship—but for the community and for the state of Kentucky, it’s so much more. You can’t underestimate its impact. Being able to stretch its life well beyond its peer group, that’s kind of special.”

As far as basketball games at Rupp, Tayshaun Prince’s five three-pointers to begin the game versus North Carolina stands out prominently in Owen’s mind. Hosting NCAA tournament games also provided quite a thrill. Coincidentally, Owen served as the official scorer’s table representative when Rick Pitino’s Louisville squad was upset by Texas A&M in 2007.

“Had Pitino not done that, we would have never heard of Billy Gillispie,” Owen quipped.

Convention Center

Not to be outdone, the Lexington Convention Center has had its share of grand moments and distinguished visitors as well. President George W. Bush came a calling for the Little League International Congress in 2010. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama also made visits to the Lexington Center during subsequent years.

“Growing up in Lexington, I think of our little burg of a community,” Owen reflected. “But yet, here we are hosting sitting and former presidents in our convention facilities. It’s something you think about. Our organization met that challenge. I guess that’s one of the things that’s significant with the Lexington Center’s staff. As an organization, we met every challenge. I can’t think of a thing that we were ill equipped to achieve. And now opening this really grand new facility, that’s kind of the zenith of it.”

Owen, with President George W. Bush, at the Little League International Congress held at the Lexington Convention Center in 2010.

Opera House

And finally, there’s the Opera House, one of the smallest theaters in the country that still offers its patrons a touring Broadway series. The city bought it through Lexington Center Corporation, renovated it, and gave it new life.

“I’m reminded of the line from The Wizard of Oz,” Owen said. “Dorothy, with tears in her eyes, looks at the Scarecrow and says, ‘I think I’ll miss you most of all.’ And they put that on a plaque on the entrance to the Opera House. And it’s next to a plaque where the original founders and board of directors of Lexington Center Corporation are listed. And to think that my name is up there with them. That’s very humbling—particularly for somebody who grew up here.”

Owen’s commemorative plaque at entrance to the Lexington Opera House. “I think I’ll miss you most of all.”

Disasters Looming

Lest you think Owen’s tenure was all sunshine and roses, think again. Two of the most significant world-wide crises occurred on his watch.

For Owen, 911 resulted in many sleepless nights. As a public assembly building manager, he spent countless hours poring over those endless reviews by Homeland Security. Think about it. That fateful Tuesday morning in 2001 forever changed the manner in which people gathered for concerts, conventions, and ballgames.

Covid-19 threw Owen an even bigger haymaker.

“March 12, 2020, for me was the day the earth stood still,” he recounted. “We’re in the second day, first game of the girls’ Sweet 16 tournament. We had just come off of three record-setting financial years. The arena is deeply under construction…and it all comes apart.”

In one fell swoop, Lexington Center went from one hundred twenty-six full-time employees to, at one point, only seventeen. Personnel decisions are always difficult. After all, it’s your work family. Time after time, Owen had to tell a lot of good friends that they couldn’t work there anymore. That was especially tough.

Tensions with UK

Here’s something I perceived was even tougher on Owen. Over the years, it’s been well documented that the city of Lexington and the University of Kentucky have engaged in a tireless (and often bitter) tug of war over ownership rights to Rupp Arena. Should a downtown location be the major community focus, or would an on-campus facility better serve the needs of the university? With so much at stake financially, it’s natural for friction to develop between the two negotiating factions, especially when they possess different end goals.

You know you’ve struck a nerve when you’re satirized in an editorial cartoon.

And yet, Owen kept his cool and remained philosophical through it all—the fickle fate of his beloved arena forever at the mercy of an unexpected regime change, a newly elected public official, or the ever-shifting whims of the state legislature.

“I’ve been married fifty years,” he told me. “UK has been in this building forty-six years. Our relationship with UK as our tenant is not unlike my relationship with my wife. It’s not like it’s been fifty years of wedded bliss and everything great. Nor has it been fifty years of combat and conflict. There’s been a share of both. But overall, both of us are a lot better off because of the relationship. And that’s kind of the way we are with UK. There are times when it’s been more of a business relationship. And other times it’s been more of a partnership.”

Who’ll Steer the Ship Now?

At age 71, Owen appears fully prepared for the upcoming retirement transition. In 2018, Lexington Center Corporation entered into a booking and management agreement with OVG, Oakview group. The California based private management company fully took over operations in October of 2021 and has since become the new Bill Owen—just as the old Bill Owen dutifully served out his term as Director of Construction in order to complete the final phases of the building project.

Understandably, Owen has a few reservations about an out-of-state corporate entity making future decisions regarding his community treasures.

“I’ve had to make my share of decisions,” Owen acknowledged. “In twenty-two years as CEO here, I’ve made an awful lot of decisions with my head. But I’ve made some with my heart too. Can you develop that if you don’t have a personal connection with the community? You probably can, but it’s easier to develop if you’ve got that connection.”

Grandpa Bill

On a personal level, I can’t see Bill Owen sitting on the couch watching Netflix and eating Bonbons. You never know, though. Everyone has their own way of dealing with major life changes.

Family Strong! Seated Left to Right: Owen, wife Debby, daughter Katie. Standing Left to Right: Daughter-in-law Sydney, son Grant, daughter Kristen.

“You can prepare for retirement every way but emotionally,” Owen said with a wry smile. “You can’t prepare emotionally until you experience it. I’ve worked steadily since I was fifteen. I got my last paycheck a week or so ago. I told my wife, ‘I’m not getting a paycheck anymore.’ That’s an adjustment.”

Owen’s wife, Debby, hates to fly, so large-scale travel most likely won’t be an adjustment problem in the years to come. Although they own some Florida property, Owen assures me he’s staying put in Lexington. He may do some consulting. A distillery docent or a horse farm tour guide aren’t out of the question, either. Most importantly, Owen just enjoys spending time with his three-year-old grandson, L.J.

“He’s taken over without firing a shot,” Owen joked. “Had I known they’d be so much fun, I would have had them first. It’s nice being close to family. I’m blessed with that.”

Owen, with grandson L.J., at a recent UK basketball game.

Thoughts Regarding Legacy

Sitting in the concourse of Rupp Arena, I asked Owen about leaving a legacy. What were his most significant professional accomplishments? How did he want others to remember him as he walked out the door?

“That’s a tough question,” he answered pensively. “I managed to be a part of keeping the torch lit. And improving all of our facilities—Rupp Arena, the Convention Center, the Opera House primarily—and extending our facilities’ contribution to the city, and to the community for a long while.”

Owen then whipped out his phone and showed me a picture of a brand-new street sign on the private driveway connecting Manchester Street to the Rupp Arena garage. The sign said “Bill Owen Way.”

“That was bestowed on me just two weeks ago,” he said. “I’m very proud of that. I’m very humbled by that.”

The newly dedicated Bill Owen Way leading up to Rupp Arena.

The Importance of Faith

Appropriately, I concluded my chat with Owen about a topic very near and dear to his heart—his Christian faith. Over time, I’ve interviewed a lot of successful individuals, and I’ve noticed one thing in particular. People of faith are somehow different. There’s a special aura surrounding them. That was certainly true of Owen. Through all his business successes, the son of a Baptist preacher always managed to keep spiritual things at the front of the line.

“I’ve grown up in the church,” he said. “I was active in leadership. I taught Sunday School. A personal faith and belief in God and reaching him through a Savior in Jesus Christ for me is an important part of my life. It always has been. The hope of something grander after this life is something I was taught, something I believed—and still believe.”

“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.’”

Congratulations, Bill Owen, on your retirement.

A very hearty “thanks” to you and your talented and dedicated staff at Lexington Center Corporation for always meeting the challenge!

Dr. John Huang is a UK columnist for Nolan Group Media and editor-in-chief of JustTheCats.com. He also covers the NFL and MLB for Sports View America. You can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs. If you enjoy his writing, be sure to check out his new book, KENTUCKY PASSION. https://www.amazon.com/Kentucky-Passion-Wildcat-Wisdom-Inspiration/dp/1684351669

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