It’s time for city officials to fish or cut bait on planning for a new recreation center in west Lawrence.
On Tuesday, members of the city’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board kicked around ideas for a center that likely would be located near Sixth Street and Wakarusa Drive. Ideas are nice, but what the community needs is a serious discussion about the details of a plan that might include a partnership with Kansas University basketball coach Bill Self and his Assists Foundation.
The foundation has offered to contribute $1 million to a rec center project, and Self has agreed to donate his time to help raise another $2 million in private funds. That’s a generous offer, but it leaves the city well short of building a recreation center that could, according to some scenarios presented on Tuesday, cost from $15 million to $22 million. City officials need to sit down with Self, representatives of his foundation and others who would be involved in planning and fundraising for the project and spell out the details of what they and the city want in the way of a recreation center and what they can reasonably afford.
This kind of public-private partnership for a recreation center would be a new experience for the city, and it raises a number of questions that need to be answered before plans can move forward. The primary interest of Self and his foundation apparently is to provide more indoor gym space in Lawrence. How many gyms does the city need, and how would the use of those gyms be allocated? Gyms in the city’s existing recreation centers serve many purposes, providing space for various exercise programs and city volleyball leagues, as well as free play time for local youngsters. Would that continue in the new recreation center or would those programs take a back seat to scheduling of paid basketball leagues or tournaments? There’s no right or wrong answer to that question, but it needs to be answered.
City officials initially estimated that $15 million would be the upper limit of what the city could afford to spend on a new recreation center. The architect who discussed various rec center concepts with the advisory board this week said that to meet that goal the city would need to choose between a recreation center that is similar to its existing centers or a fieldhouse facility that would house multiple gyms that might attract out-of-town basketball or volleyball tournaments or other events. Adding other facilities, such as a gymnastics area, wellness classrooms or dedicated space for dance and aerobics classes would run the price tag into the $20 million range.
That’s more than the city may be able to afford, which is why Parks and Recreation Advisory Board members were throwing out the idea of charging adult patrons a fee to use facilities such as the gym, weight room and track. That would set a new precedent for the city, which currently allows use of weight rooms, cardio facilities and some other facilities free of charge. If fees are considered for the new center, they probably also should be considered for existing centers, although officials should put a high priority on providing free access for youngsters.
It would be great for the city to be able to take advantage of Self’s generous offer to support this project, but this idea has been kicked around for some time and the coach and his foundation deserve to know whether the city is serious about moving forward on it. The city and its boards need to move beyond the brainstorming stage, bring the key players to the table and get down to brass tacks about what the city needs, what it can afford and how its needs and plans fit in with what Self and his foundation have in mind.