Deal near for KU Coach Bill Self to donate $1 million for new west Lawrence recreation center

A deal is in the works for Kansas University men’s basketball coach Bill Self to make a more than $1 million donation to spur construction of a new west Lawrence recreation center.

Mayor Aron Cromwell confirmed the city soon will start discussing an offer made by Self’s Assists Foundation to donate $1 million to a recreation center project and for Self to donate his time to help raise another $2 million in private funds.

“We’re just waiting in the wings to hear from the city, and hopefully that will be sooner rather than later,” said Erin Zimney, executive director of the Assists Foundation. “Nothing has been formalized yet, but I can tell you that we would love to support a project like this.”

Zimney said Self and the foundation have sensed a lack of available gym space and other indoor recreation space in the city, particularly on the west side.

Cromwell said the city is interested in considering a partnership.

“I feel like this could be a really good way to leverage some private money for a needed project,” Cromwell said.

Self’s donation, however, would pay for only a fraction of the center. Cromwell estimated the total costs for the project may be close to $15 million.

Project years away

City leaders have had preliminary discussions about using existing sales tax money to finance the remainder of the project. The city last year finished paying off the Indoor Aquatic Center, which freed up about $260,000 a year. By 2016, the city also will have paid off the Eagle Bend Golf Course and the Community Health Center. Those two projects will free up another $1.2 million in funds.

City staff members previously have recommended a 40-acre site of city-owned property that is just north of the Walmart at Sixth Street and Wakarusa Drive as a prime location for a West Lawrence center, which they have said would fill a gap in the city’s recreation offerings.

City Manager David Corliss said if the project moves forward — it likely will be discussed by city commissioners in the next two to three weeks — construction wouldn’t begin until at least 2013. The city would use 2012 to concentrate on design and private fundraising. Cromwell said the city wouldn’t issue any new debt for the project until private fundraising was completed.

City funding

The project comes forward, however, at a time when city commissioners will be contemplating a rise in the city’s property tax rate to fund other needs. The mill levy in 2012 is expected to increase by at least 1.7 mills to pay for a voter-approved expansion of the Lawrence Public Library. Commissioners also are expected to consider an additional property tax increase to fund more police officers.

The countywide sales tax — approved by voters in 1994 — allows the sales tax collections to be used for any governmental purpose. But Corliss and Cromwell said they would be hesitant to recommend that the freed up sales tax money be used to fund police needs or other projects not related to parks and recreation. That’s because parks and recreation projects were a selling point used to convince voters to support the sales tax 17 years ago.

“We have the legal authority to use it however we want,” Cromwell said of the sales tax dollars. “But the moral authority I don’t think is there to use it for anything other than recreation.”

In 1994, voters were told the new 1 percent sales tax would fund: Parks and recreation projects; the Community Health Building that houses Bert Nash and the Health Department; construction of Douglas County Jail; and to provide property tax relief. Since then, the city also has begun spending about $600,000 per year of sales tax money to fund street projects.

Potential plans

Formal plans for a new recreation center haven’t been developed, but Parks and Recreation leaders have been discussing concept plans for the past several years. Features that previously have been mentioned as possibilities for a new center include:

• Six full-size gymnasiums that could be used to accommodate basketball, volleyball and indoor soccer. The fieldhouse concept has been touted as a potential economic development benefit if it can be used to help draw more youth tournaments to the city.

• A quarter-mile walking/jogging track that would be built on a mezzanine above the gym space.

• Space for advanced gymnastics equipment.

• Areas for dance, aerobics, fitness and wellness programs.