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News and notes from around town:
• All right, lace up those hightops, buckle the knee brace, snug the ankle wrap, bite down on the mouthguard, apply the Icy-hot, and doublecheck your insurance policy. We’re going to do recreation today. (I’ve found that when you reach a certain age, there is much to do before you do recreation.)
But the point is, I still have several items in my notebook about the proposed $25 million recreation center in northwest Lawrence, and this is my last chance to get them out of there before tonight’s meeting at City Hall.
In case you have forgotten, commissioners at their 6:35 p.m. meeting tonight are accepting public comment about the proposed 181,000-square-foot regional recreation center. Commissioners won’t be making any decisions tonight, but clearly this is an important step in the process. Commissioners likely will provide direction to staff members to start crafting the formal agreements that will commit the city to the project.
All right stretching time is over. (That is what you were doing, isn’t it?) Let’s get down to it.
• The Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission at its meeting last night recommended approval of both an annexation request and a rezoning request for the 110 acres where the recreation center and the KU sports complex would be located. The site is just north of the northeast corner of Sixth Street and the SLT. Planning commissioners approved the requests on an 8-0 vote, with one abstention. The rezoning is for general public and institutional uses. The items next will go to the City Commission for final approval. But it appears the land use part of this project is facing calm seas.
• City commissioners are considering building this $25 million recreation center at a time when the city’s parks and recreation staff have expressed concern about being able to keep up with the maintenance needs of existing parks and recreation facilities.
I was reminded of this as I was going through some budget documents yesterday for the most recent article I’ve written about the recreation center. For the past several budgets, the city’s parks and recreation leaders have included a warning as part of its official budget submittal that says rising fuel and utility costs along with reductions in staff and increased demand on facilities “creates the real potential for maintenance needs not being able to keep up with programmed use of the facilities.”
Indeed, the city’s parks/facilities maintenance budget has taken a hit in recent years. In 2008, the city’s parks maintenance fund (which also includes maintenance of park buildings) had 41 employees. In 2013, it is budgeted to have about 32. In 2008, the fund spent $3.26 million on maintenance. In 2013, it is budgeted to spend $3.28 million on maintenance.
Just to be clear, the city is budgeting some money for maintenance of the new building. Beginning in 2017, it is planning to set aside $100,000 a year for major maintenance of the building, and the amount will grow to $150,000 by 2027. (In addition, the city is planning to subsidize the operations of the facility — which includes cleaning and other things that could fall under the maintenance category — to the tune of about $350,000 per year.) But all of that money is just devoted to the new facility. None of that appears to address the long-standing concerns from parks and recreation leaders about how they are going to adequately maintain the existing facilities and parks on an essentially status quo budget.
City Manager David Corliss and I played phone tag yesterday, so I didn’t get the chance to go over these numbers with him in more detail. The city budget has many ins and outs, and there are other funds that can be applied to parks maintenance. But this is the primary one in the city’s general budget, and I thought the budget warning that parks and recreation staff members have issued was worth repeating.
• I had one city official suggest to me that all the new sales taxes generated by athletes and their families who come to the center for youth tournaments might end up providing the parks and recreation department more money to fund its maintenance needs.
But as we started doing some back-of-the-napkin-type math, the official backed away from that argument. Here’s the math:
The city acknowledges that the new recreation center — like most recreation projects — won’t directly pay for itself. Currently the city is projecting user fees, tournament rental fees and such will fall about $350,000 per year short of covering the facility’s operational costs.
But those tournaments and events at the center will cause people to come to town and spend their money. When people spend their money, that means increased sales tax collections for the city. So, will all that new spending produce enough new sales tax revenue to pay for the center’s operations and leave some money left over to address other needs? The very simple answer is no.
The city hired a consultant earlier this year to estimate the economic impact of the entire sports complex, meaning both the recreation center and the KU facilities. The consulting firm estimated that athletes and visitors to the center would spend $6.39 million a year in the city. When you use various multipliers — for example, if a gas station makes more money in Lawrence, theoretically the gas station owner is going to spend more money in Lawrence — the total spending generated by the center grows to $9.21 million.
The city, of course, doesn’t get to keep that $9.21 million in spending. It only gets to keep the portion it can charge a sales tax on. The authors of the report did that math for us. They estimate the city will receive an extra $151,000 in sales taxes and an extra $45,000 a year hotel taxes from the project. Put your abacus away. That’s a total of $196,000.
But remember, the city already has said it expects to have to subsidize the operations of the new recreation center to the tune of $350,000 a year. So, based on the report provided to the city, the tax revenues generated from new spending won’t be enough to cover the operational costs of the center, let alone provide any money for other city needs.
• Proponents of the new recreation center, however, will contend that if you just view those numbers, you are forgetting about the true purpose of the center. When all this talk of a recreation center started more than a year ago, the driving issue was that the city had a shortage of available gym space, and the northwest area of the city had a particular shortage of indoor recreation space.
And proponents argued that now is a great time to build a new recreation center because interest costs are incredibly low, and the city has existing debt coming off the books that will allow it to build a center without increasing taxes. In other words, the argument is that you can meet a lot of local recreation needs without producing much pain for local taxpayers.
It will be interesting to see if city officials and the numerous proponents of the recreation center try to steer the discussion back to those points tonight.
But it may be difficult. When the city went from talking about an approximately $12 million facility a year ago to talking about $25 million facility today, city officials began touting the regional nature of this new facility to justify the growing price tag.
Now, the city appears to find itself in a situation where it has created an expectation that a new multi-gym recreation center is going to attract multiple events from outside the area.
Specifically, the consultant’s report noted above assumes this when it comes to events: 18 basketball tournaments and six camps per year; 12 volleyball tournaments and four camps per year; two indoor soccer tournaments and two camps per year and two tournaments for other sports and four camps per year.
Rightly or wrongly, those numbers likely will hang over this facility for a long time to come.
• Well, this is just in. As I checked in with officials from the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Department, it appears last night’s Planning Commission meeting brought a new round of debate about whether large retail development should be allowed on the northwest corner of Sixth Street and the South Lawrence Trafficway.
If you remember, that was the site where the city originally was going to build its recreation center and KU was going to build its sports complex. That deal then fell apart and the project moved to a site on the east side of the SLT.
But the landowners on the northwest corner still believe that retail zoning should be allowed for the corner, despite the fact that the recreation center no longer will be there.
Last month, the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission disagreed. It recommended denial of a rezoning request and other associated items. That was a reversal of its opinion from just a few months earlier, when planners thought the recreation center was going to be adjacent to the new retail area.
Now I’m told a representative for the ownership group — which is led by Lawrence developers Duane and Steve Schwada — came to last night’s Planning Commission meeting and convinced the Planning Commission to add an unscheduled agenda item related to the northwest site.
Near the end of the meeting, planning commissioners did add the item and decided on a 5-4 vote to ask city commissioners reopen the issue of whether retail zoning should be allowed at the northwest corner of the intersection.
If city commissioners agree to reopen the issue, that would mean the item would go back to the Planning Commission for reconsideration. If you have lost track, that would mark the third time the Planning Commission will have considered the issue of retail for that corner.
But, hey, maybe it makes sense. The Planning Commission has voted for it once and against it once all in a matter of a few months. As they say on the playground: “Best two out of three.”
I’ll let you know how the City Commission reacts to the request.