Lawrence is a great place to live. It has a proud history, and opportunities for the future are almost unlimited. With the proper leadership, vision and courage, there is every reason to believe Lawrence could indeed merit the title of "America's Finest University City."
For many years, this writer has been suggesting this should be the city's goal. Such a title would suggest Lawrence has good job opportunities, good schools, good health care, good law enforcement, good housing, a good town-gown relationship, a clean environment and good government. To justify the title, the city cannot settle for merely being "good" but must try to be "excellent," the "best," way above average. The city should be looked to as a model for other college communities.
In many categories, Lawrence already stacks up fairly well, but there is no room to relax or think Lawrence has it made. The competition will become even more intense, and there is nothing automatic about Lawrence's future. There must be continuous effort to improve and be an even better city for all its residents.
One area that is becoming increasingly worrisome is the delivery of basic city services: the infrastructure and personnel to make sure Lawrence is a convenient, attractive and safe place to live. Water and sewer service, well-maintained streets and adequate law enforcement are basic responsibilities of a city's government, but recent stories have indicated that Lawrence officials may not be keeping up with the needs of a growing city. The money needed to catch up in these basic areas may hamper spending on other projects like a community sports center, a state-of-the-art library or other facilities that a truly great city should have.
The city's sewer system has raised many legitimate concerns. The obvious lack of sewer planning is likely to cause a severe slowdown in residential and commercial development in the city. Population estimates used in planning sewers in northwest Lawrence were far too low and, as a result, development in that area may be delayed.
It is understood city officials were surprised several days ago to learn that the city's existing sewer capacity may be insufficient for a major "New Urbanism" development recently approved by city commissioners for the northeast corner of Sixth Street and Wakarusa Drive. While the city is figuring out whether there is a problem and, if there is, how long it will take to fix, development may be stalled.
What kind of planning is this? Where is the vision? Is this the fault of Black and Veatch consultants, on whom the city has relied for years for water and sewer projects? Is someone in City Hall not measuring up? How can a city such as Lawrence, which prides itself in so many areas, have such a fouled-up situation with its sewer system? It's an embarrassment, and the public should demand to know what's going on. Would this kind of performance be tolerated in private business? Wouldn't changes be made?
Add to this the question of what the city is going to do about another sewage treatment plant, projected to be the largest public works project ever undertaken by the city. Some at City Hall said the new plant must be in operation by 2011, but no site has been selected. That decision likely will turn into a typical Lawrence public debate with various individuals having conflicting ideas about whether the city should build a traditional treatment plant or be a pioneer in new techniques using lagoons, special worms to devour the waste or other means. Where should it be placed in relation to the Wakarusa River and how might this location be affected by the long-delayed South Lawrence Trafficway?
The SLT is a major embarrassment for the city and should have been completed years ago. While the debate has continued, the costs of the project have skyrocketed. The road should follow the route just south of 31st Street. Baker University officials have been more than generous in working with the city, county and state in setting a route along the north edge of the Baker Wetlands, and it is time to move ahead.
Within the past few days, news stories have reported the terrible condition of a high percentage of Lawrence streets. It is estimated that as many as 31 percent of the city's streets have deteriorated to the point they will require major repairs or rebuilding. The cost will be tremendous and this does not include streets that are in bad shape but still able to be repaired.
Why have the streets deteriorated so fast? Why haven't city officials been on top of this situation? Who is supposed to be checking the quality of street construction? Is anyone demanding top-quality work? Is there anyone checking specifications or the quality of the aggregate rock and other materials being used in street construction?
The city's current public works director said the new streets that will be built will last much longer than many existing streets because of new building standards implemented since he came on the job in 2002. For instance, the city now is using more concrete, rather than asphalt in street construction. Older standards allowed streets like Wakarusa Drive to be build directly on Kansas clay that frequently shrinks and expands, causing cracks and potholes. Kansas clay has been around since Lawrence's founding. Why are we just now upgrading standards to compensate for the problems it causes?
Sewers, sewer treatment facilities, massive street replacement costs, a lack of planning for future city needs and other questionable actions - or inactions - should be a concern to all residents. Another key responsibility of city government is the city's police force. Recent incidents in Lawrence may raise questions about whether the city has enough officers.
Concern should be focused on the lack of planning and vision in City Hall as well as how much it will cost the city and its residents in higher taxes and fees to make up for the lack of proper planning.
This writer often has quoted a friend who years ago suggested signs should be placed at all entrances to Lawrence with the message, "Welcome to Lawrence, Home of the Little Hitters."
Even though the city has an excellent history of accomplishment, it isn't known as a city that thinks "big" or far enough ahead. The Horizon 2020 long-range plan that already is out of date is an example of the limited vision of many in City Hall.
There is more than one way to "think big." In Lawrence, far too many people judge bigness by how much money they can spend on a project, whether or not that much money is essential. Officials should remember it is someone else's money.
The other way to "think big" is to have residents and officials looking ahead to what is best for the city, giving taxpayers the best use and return on their tax money and having the vision and courage to think smart about the future.
Lawrence needs big thinkers who also are smart and visionary thinkers. There is reason to question whether this is the current situation in City Hall and among some of our elected officials.