Lawrence city commissioners on Tuesday tentatively answered one question about the idea of a new west Lawrence recreation center: About $15 million is how much the community should invest.
But at least two other questions emerged: Where should the new center be built, and can Kansas University basketball coach Bill Self’s foundation help the city raise up to $3 million in private money for the facility?
“It is time for the next generation of recreation facilities,” said Mayor Aron Cromwell. “I feel like we have done a pretty good job of running the town, and that affords us the ability to do projects like this when they come along.”
But the project is far from a done deal. Commissioners only gave staff members the authority to do preliminary work on the project. That will include making a recommendation on the best spot for the project. Parks and Recreation leaders have been promoting a city-owned site just north of Sixth Street and Wakarusa Drive.
But on Tuesday evening, the city was told a landowner was willing to donate a larger 50-acre site at the northwest corner of Sixth Street and the South Lawrence Trafficway. The site — the owner of the property wasn’t specifically identified in a letter to commissioners, but local businessmen Duane and Steve Schwada previously have been connected with the property — could provide the city more opportunity to grow the center in the future and might serve as a catalyst for retail and other development at the Sixth and SLT intersection.
Commissioners also directed staff to have more detailed conversations with Self’s Assists Foundation. The foundation has made an informal pledge of $1 million to the project, but there has been some indication that Self could help raise another $2 million in private funds.
A majority of commissioners said they wanted to create an agreement with Self’s foundation about a plan that would involve the city committing $12 million to the project, but only if an additional $3 million could be raised through Self’s foundation and other private donors. Commissioners moved forward on the project after more than an hour of public comment, with most speakers saying the city was in need of more indoor recreation space.
“I came down tonight very skeptical about whether I would support this,” said City Commissioner Bob Schumm. “But I’ve been convinced there is a real need. I’m willing to move one step further down the line and see if the fundraising will really take hold.”
Commissioners were not unanimous in moving forward. Commissioner Mike Amyx voted against the idea. He said he was concerned about possible declines in the city’s tax base that would make paying for the project more difficult in the future. He also said the community needed to have a discussion about how this project fit in with other city priorities.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that we need the space,” Amyx said. “I’m concerned about the operating costs. I don’t want to come up with a shortfall in a couple of years.”
Commissioners left many details of the project open-ended but did provide some guidance on several topics, including:
• The city should be thinking of a center with at least five gyms, an indoor walking track, a cardio and weight room, space for wellness activities, and an aerobics and dance area.
• Public funding wouldn’t come from new taxes but rather would come from the city’s share of an existing countywide sales tax that is being used to fund the Health Department building and several Parks and Recreation Department projects. Many of those projects will be paid for by 2016, which will free up the sales tax dollars.
• Any user fees at the center likely should be limited to classes and use of the cardio and weight rooms. The city would need to establish a program to waive the fees for people who don’t have the ability to pay.
Commissioners didn’t provide any specific direction on the issue of where the center should be located. But several commissioners said they did want to consider a site that could allow the center to serve as a regional attraction for tournaments that draw out-of-town teams.
“This is Lawrence, Kansas, and the home of Kansas University basketball,” Commissioner Hugh Carter said. “We can really do a lot here, if that is what we want to do. One thing I would be worried about is thinking too small.”