What started as a relatively simple, clear-cut scheme to develop a good — actually, an excellent — city recreation center has turned into a tangled, confusing and embarrassing mess.
Over the years, Lawrence residents have witnessed numerous conflicts over various development projects, but few, if any, match what is going on today with the recreation center effort.
What started with city officials trumpeting the plan as a means for the city to enhance its relationship with Kansas University now has expanded to include many other players. In many ways, the city really is not calling many of the shots about how the project will be developed.
What started as a city-university program now has evolved to include the KU Endowment Association, KU basketball coach Bill Self and his Assists Foundation and KU Athletic Director Sheahon Zenger as major players. City politics now are playing a role, with local developer-builder Thomas Fritzel emerging as the central player.
In fact, what started as a KU-city project now is a Fritzel-city project with the city, city commissioners and various planning officials caving in on many long-time city policies.
The Endowment Association has a contract to buy the land where the recreation center would be located and is committed to having the entire project built by Fritzel, who also will own the project’s KU facilities and lease them back to the university. Having handled the land part of the deal, the Endowment Association has washed its hands of any consequences or negative fallout from the deal it helped broker. It appears the university, Kansas Athletics and perhaps Self were used as a front or window dressing to generate enthusiasm and a belief that all aspects of the development would be above-board.
Now, Kansas Athletics is into the project hook, line and sinker, the Endowment Association has OK’d a development arrangement it has never before granted, and some city officials are intent on jamming this project through in record time, probably hoping to get it all done before it becomes an issue in the next City Commission election.
Under the deal and zoning Fritzel is working out with the city, he will control the entire area except for the 20 acres that will be owned by the city. Kansas Athletics will lease its facilities from Fritzel, and, apparently, when KU is not using the facilities, Fritzel will be able to use them for a variety of events and pocket proceeds from those events, such as tickets, concessions and possibly liquor sales. Endowment officials say they and Kansas Athletics would have to approve the events, and the city would have to issue a special use permit, but it still represents a huge financial opportunity for Fritzel.
This is just one example of how far and how fast the project has been allowed to develop without the city — or the public — knowing all the details of the plan.
Adequate parking and traffic flow in and out of the center and how this will affect neighbors are issues that remain to be addressed. How long is the lease Kansas Athletics will sign with Fritzel? Who actually controls acreage not yet designated for specific uses? Will additional commercial development be permitted?
Some observers have said the only way to find out all the details is if and when someone files a legal action related to the project, which, in turn, would require many of the players to testify under oath.
If Kansas Athletics leases the facilities from Fritzel, who will own them, who, other than the university can use these facilities?
There are too many unanswered questions, too many strings or threads attached to the project that keep unraveling and revealing new information and details.
Lawrence deserves better oversight by city officials. This is a deal unlike anything in the city’s history.