The Kansas University Endowment Association is pursuing plans for a major stadium development in northwest Lawrence in the way that makes the most sense and carries the greatest benefit for KU, but is that necessarily the best plan for the taxpayers of Lawrence?
That may be one of the questions City Commissioner Mike Amyx was referring to in Friday’s Journal-World when he noted he’s still hearing a lot of questions in the community about the size and location of a new city recreation center that may be built as part of a much larger sports complex at the intersection of Sixth Street and the South Lawrence Trafficway. Plans for the complex also include a softball stadium and track and field stadium for KU, as well as city facilities that would include eight lighted tennis courts and five miles of walking trails in addition to the recreation center.
There’s no reason to think that KU Endowment officials have anything but the best intentions in working with the city on a recreation center. The end product may be an incredible deal for the city, allowing it to build a much larger and more complete facility than it could afford on its own. But there are parts of this deal that probably make some taxpayers, and perhaps even some city officials, a little uneasy.
KU Endowment came up with the money to buy the site, and it’s only natural that Endowment officials’ top priority is what is best for KU. The way this deal is structured, Endowment will have the final say on whatever is built in the new athletic complex. The plan is for Endowment to build the recreation center structure to the city’s specifications and then sell it to the city for $25 million. The city obviously can protect itself in this deal by making sure it is getting what it wants before making that payment, but, as some observers have noted, any disagreement on the finished product between city and KU officials could get messy.
KU Endowment also will have final say on who will be the contractor on that site. The traditional way for the city to select a contractor for a project like this is through a competitive bidding process, but Endowment apparently already is focusing on a single construction firm for the entire project. That process in itself may be a little troubling to some taxpayers, but their concerns may be heightened by the fact that the contractor KU has in mind is Thomas Fritzel of Fritzel Construction, a firm with which the city has had some troublesome recent interactions. As city officials obviously are aware, if they move forward with this deal, they must do so with caution and with many protections in place.
Perhaps the overriding question about this project for many Lawrence residents is whether putting the city’s recreation center near the KU facilities has enough benefits for the city to offset the loss of city control over the construction process and perhaps in future operations at the site. The answer may be “yes,” if, as projected, the city can pay $25 million for facilities worth $33 million. The other related question is whether the new recreation center at that location is the best way to address local recreation needs, or is that mission taking a back seat to a speculative venture aimed at attracting regional athletic events and visitors.
Commissioners have set another public comment session on this project for 8 p.m. Thursday at Free State High School. It would be a good opportunity for the public to get some questions answered and perhaps have some concerns assuaged.