Lawrence city commissioners are moving closer to a $15 million decision on a new recreation center, thanks in part to a friendly press applied by Kansas University basketball coach Bill Self.
City commissioners on Tuesday tentatively agreed to discuss at their Nov. 8 meeting whether to begin moving forward on a new recreation center for west Lawrence. The new timeline comes after Self’s Assists Foundation sent a letter to city officials indicating that the foundation’s plans to donate $1 million to the project would no longer be moving forward unless the city showed new signs of seriousness about the project.
City commissioners responded with some urgency, almost like a Jayhawk team coming out of a timeout.
“We’re going to have to come up with some answers on what we’re willing to spend on a recreation center,” said Mayor Aron Cromwell. “I think we’re going to have to figure out what we’re going to do here in the next couple of weeks.”
When commissioners discuss the subject in two weeks, they won’t set anything in stone. Instead, commissioners are expected to discuss whether they think a $15 million recreation center/fieldhouse project could fit into the city’s near-term debt plans. Next steps could involve seeking proposals from architects to develop specific plans for a facility and to receive proposals from fundraisers who could help solicit funding from private donors as well.
A representative from Self’s Assist Foundation assured commissioners that the foundation’s letter wasn’t meant as a sign that the foundation’s enthusiasm for the project had cooled. Miles Schnaer, a local auto dealer and member of the foundation’s board, said Self was very interested in following through on the foundation’s informal pledge of $1 million. He said Self also wants to lend his name and time to help raise additional funds from the public at large.
“We’re ready to do something, and this project meets so many goals of the foundation,” Schnaer said. “We just want to know that the city is committed to it. If the city is not committed to it, we would move on. But if the city is committed to it, we will do what we have committed to do.”
Now the ball is in the city’s court. All five commissioners were in agreement to bring the issue back up in two weeks, but it was unclear that a majority could support the idea of a multimillion dollar recreation project during this economy.
Commissioners Hugh Carter and Bob Schumm both said they wanted a thorough analysis of what other projects the city might have to put on hold if they were to move forward with a recreation center.
“It is a lot of money in bad economic times,” Schumm said. “And we’re committing a lot of money for a long period of time to a single project for parks and recreation.”
Exactly what a recreation center/fieldhouse project would include would get hashed out in more detail in the future. But members of the city’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board told commissioners that a facility should include at least five gyms in order to meet both community needs and to give the city a chance to host regional or national youth basketball tournaments.
Other amenities likely would include an area for cardio and weight training equipment and a walking/jogging track.
Schnaer said Self was particularly excited about the chance to bring some major youth basketball tournaments to Lawrence.
“His ability to help us bring some high-profile tournaments to town is pretty unique,” Schnaer said.
Jana Dobbs, chairwoman of the city’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, said her research had found that the economic impact of youth basketball and volleyball tournaments could be significant. She cited a study done by Texas A&M professors that found a single 120-team youth basketball tournament in College Station, Texas, produced $420,000 in direct spending in the city. Dobbs said a new Lawrence facility could attract several large tournaments a year.
“I think the type of dollars we’re talking about would represent a pretty good return on our investment,” Dobbs said.
Commissioner Mike Dever expressed some optimism the city would find a way to build a quality center for significantly less than the $15 million estimate put forward by Lawrence architecture firm Gould Evans. Dever said he had seen recent recreation centers constructed for about $105 per square foot, while the city’s estimates anticipated costs of more than $140 per square foot.
“I don’t think we’re at the point of saying how many gyms we want or anything like that, but we do need to decide whether we’re willing to commit some money to this project,” Dever said.