Fans of a proposed West Lawrence recreation center were urged Tuesday to start making some noise at City Hall in hopes of keeping the idea alive during tight budget times.
Members of the city’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board said they were concerned the proposal was on the ropes after city commissioners last week agreed to cut $200,000 from the parks and recreation department budget — even though the cut came with a warning from the city manager that it would make future large-scale projects very difficult.
“It seems like short-sighted thinking at the moment,” said Jana Dobbs, chair of the city-appointed advisory board.
Commissioners agreed to the $200,000 cut as they struggled with ways to add police officers and provide city employees a raise without increasing property taxes.
Dobbs said she thinks the Parks and Recreation Department has been an easy cut for commissioners because the department performs well enough that the public hasn’t been demanding increases in services.
“When something is running smooth, you don’t hear a lot about it,” Dobbs said. “We have a lot of satisfied customers, which is great. But it is true that it is easy to grease the squeaky wheel.”
Parks and recreation staff members briefed the board on the latest budget issues. Ernie Shaw, interim director of parks and recreation, told the board that the staff believes a West Lawrence recreation center is still needed. The center, proposed for city-owned property near Sixth Street and Wakarusa Drive, would feature multiple gyms in a fieldhouse type of arrangement.
Shaw said gym space was critically low in the city, citing that competitive volleyball players now must travel outside of Lawrence to compete and that many youth basketball leagues consist only of six-game seasons because of the gym shortage.
But he also said he understands the financial pressures the city is facing.
“I think the public really just needs to let the commission know whether it thinks this is a need or not,” Shaw said. “If they do, great. If they don’t, that’s fine too. I just want to make sure there’s public input, and I’m not sure parks and recreation issues are generating much public comment right now.”
A formal proposal hasn’t been publicly presented to city commissioners yet. But officials have confirmed that a recreation center project likely would cost about $15 million. Officials also have confirmed that Kansas University basketball coach Bill Self’s foundation has an interest in donating to the project — likely $1 million from the foundation with Self helping to raise another $2 million in private donations.
Board members expressed concern that Self may choose to donate the money to other causes outside Lawrence, if the project is going to be delayed several years.
Shaw said the foundation has been good to work with and hasn’t made any demands, but he said he has not had detailed discussions with the group since news of the budget cuts came down last week.
“I do know they want a project they can sink their teeth into,” Shaw said of the foundation. “I think they were hoping it would be in Lawrence, but I know they have other options.”
City commissioners are set to finalize the 2012 budget on Aug. 2. They are expected to put a discussion of the recreation center project on a meeting sometime after the budget is finalized.