In the 1800s, a character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” inspired the expression “grow like Topsy,” which has come to describe anything that seems to grow wildly and perhaps without sufficient intention or design.
Hopefully that will not become an apt phrase to describe the evolution of a proposed city recreation complex in northwest Lawrence — a project that started out as an effort to take advantage of a generous $1 million gift from Bill and Cindy Self’s Assists Foundation and already has grown into a facility that will require a $24 million investment from city taxpayers, not counting the cost of extending city infrastructure to the site.
A public meeting on Monday revealed more details about the center, but it also raised some new questions that must be considered and answered before the city makes a decision on whether to move forward on this project.
Parking plans for the project have drawn some well-deserved comment. How does it work to have an 800-car parking lot to serve a 10,000-seat track and field stadium — or even a 2,000-seat soccer field or a fieldhouse that could accommodate up to 1,900 spectators? City officials assure us that facilities such as fitness areas, the indoor walking track and multipurpose areas will be open to the general public even during major tournament events, but good luck finding a parking space.
Much attention has been focused on the major new athletic events this complex could attract to Lawrence. It’s exciting to consider the economic impact of the many amateur youth sports events that might use the facility, not to mention the possibility of attracting the Big 12 or national NCAA track and field championships. But it’s important to remember the everyday fitness and recreation needs of local residents. What, if any, fees will be charged to local residents who want to use the indoor walking track or weight room? Access to the facility also needs to be considered. The need to extend city bus service to the site has been discussed, but can the city’s T provide adequate service to a location that should be serving both children and adults?
Also, there is some question of how the economic impact of a new facility at the edge of town will be spread across the community. How much direct financial benefit can the city expect to draw, based on similar facilities in other cities? Will downtown businesses and hotels benefit from these events or will the primary benefit be for new hotels, restaurants and retail outlets that will sprout up near the new complex?
It’s true that the KU track facility could be a major factor in drawing events and visitors to Lawrence, but should the city drive a harder financial bargain with the university? Current plans are for KU and its private donors to pay for the construction and maintenance of the track facility but nothing for the land or the cost of extending utilities to the site. Also, city officials say they don’t expect the public to have any access to the track for walking and jogging.
As noted above, the proposed recreation complex presents some tantalizing economic development possibilities for the city. This project clearly is on the fast track, and it’s moving so fast that many residents (taxpayers) are having a hard time keeping up with the planning and the details. The effort to blend the needs of a community recreation facility with those of a regional sports destination, a major university track facility and associated for-profit development may work beautifully, but it is a complex equation that city officials should take the time to review carefully before committing so many local tax dollars.